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Explained: Half the world’s students out of class, what happens next?

The COVID-19 outbreak has pulled almost half the world’s student population out of class, estimates UNESCO. Why was this massive disruption needed, and why do some countries resist such a move?

Written by Ritika Chopra | New Delhi | Updated: March 20, 2020 2:05:29 pm
Explained: Half of world's student population out of class, what happens next? A student attends an online class with a smartphone at home during the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Hong Kong, China March 16, 2020. (Reuters Photo: Tyrone Siu)

A number of countries around the world have shut down schools, colleges and universities because of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Why did some countries feel it necessary to do so while others did not? What is the impact on learning and other areas?

How many students has the outbreak affected?

The outbreak has pulled almost half (49.22%) of the world’s student population out of schools and universities. According to UNESCO, until late on Tuesday, 107 countries had announced a complete shutdown of classrooms, impacting 86.17 crore children and youth. Although the temporary closure of educational institutions on account of a crisis is not new, the scale of the present education disruption is unprecedented.

Has India implemented nationwide closure of schools and universities?

The Centre announced the closure of all universities and schools on March 16. However, many educational institutions continue to remain open for heads, teachers and non-teaching staff. Also, in many states including Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, Board examinations are being held as per schedule, forcing Class 10 and 12 students to step out regularly. On Wednesday, the Union government ordered the CBSE, NIOS and all universities and colleges to suspend ongoing examinations. Following this, the Delhi government announced a complete closure of all schools, even for teachers and non-teaching staff. Other state governments are expected to follow suit.

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Are school and university shutdowns helpful in mitigating an outbreak?

The World Health Organisation recommends school closure (including preschool and higher education) as one of the “non-pharmaceutical interventions” for mitigating influenza pandemics. The rationale is that children and young people can be vectors of transmission, and high contact rates in schools could abet the spread of the virus. With COVID-19, children and the young have been observed to suffer less than the elderly when infected, but they can still transmit the virus to the elderly at home. With school closures during a pandemic, governments hope to break the chains of transmission. This will help reduce the number of confirmed cases, avoid stressing healthcare systems, and allow more time to develop a vaccine.

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Why then are some countries not proactively closing schools?

The cost of keeping schools closed is a reason why governments resist the idea. Closure not only disrupts learning but also has a direct economic cost. Because when schools close, families would have to find childcare. While some may manage to look after children without missing work, many parents will end up skipping work. Those lost work hours are a cost to the economy.

A study published in the BMC Public Health journal in April 2008 suggested that a 12-week closure of schools in the UK during an influenza pandemic could cost about £0.2 billion to £1.2 billion per week — around 0.2-1% of the country’s GDP. A 2016 study by the Brookings Institution estimated the cost of a four-week closure of schools in the US to be $47 billion. The UK resisted the idea of school closures for a long time for precisely this reason. Their government finally gave in on Thursday, and announced a nationwide shutdown of schools from Friday.

Explained: Half of world's student population out of class, what happens next? Coronavirus latest update: Student coming out from an examination centre. (Express Photo)

The disadvantages of classroom shutdowns are far greater for students from underprivileged backgrounds. When schools close, their nutrition is compromised. This is already evident in India, where the closure of schools has disrupted the supply of midday meals. Taking suo motu cognisance of this problem, the Supreme Court this week issued notices to all state governments to explain how they would ensure the midday meals reach the vulnerable while schools stay shut.

As schools and universities move towards learning online to make up for lost time, students from low-income families risk falling behind as they don’t have access to technology or stable Internet connections. That apart, parents of first-generation learners in schools are often unprepared for distance learning and home-schooling.

How are governments trying to minimise learning disruptions after closure?

Countries are adopting distance learning solutions to ensure continuity of education. A COVID-19 task force set up by UNESCO is advising countries in regular virtual meetings with Education Ministers.

China, the first country to impose a lockdown on citizens, was also the first to launch a simultaneous online learning exercise. The Ministry of Education, according to China Daily, launched a national cloud learning platform to cater to students in middle school and high school. Simultaneously, a television channel, China Education Television Channel 4, was dedicated to broadcasting classes for primary school students. The learning platforms, China Daily said, were separate for different groups to prevent network congestion from too many students going online at the same time. The country also mobilised its three biggest telecoms operators — China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom — to boost Internet connectivity.

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In India, the closure of schools happened towards the end of the academic year. Hence, as of now, it hasn’t caused any significant learning loss. However, if schools and universities were to remain shut beyond March 31, Union and state governments will have to implement distance learning solutions.

The Human Resource Development Ministry has decided to encourage schools and universities to “make full use” of existing e-learning portals such as the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) platform Swayam, and the free DTH channel Swayam Prabha, which telecasts educational videos prepared by the NCERT.

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