The new year has begun with a cautious — and welcome — unlocking of the classroom. Several states, including Karnataka, Bihar, Puducherry, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and some districts of Maharashtra, among others, have chosen to partially reopen schools, starting with higher classes. In Assam, even younger students (Class I and upwards) are now back to school. While safety remains a priority and the school as it existed — from rambunctious playgrounds to crowded lunch hours and indoor classes — will have to be reimagined keeping the pandemic in mind, this is a necessary step back to normal for the children. The CBSE’s decision to conduct board examinations for Classes X and XII in May-June is another signal that the long interruption of education is now close to an end.
If there is one realisation from the COVID-19 outbreak, it is that school is too enmeshed with the analogue experiences of life — the eye contact between teacher and students, the way children learn from peers, the solidarity they give each other — to be converted fully into a digital format. Even for the tiny minority of students from privileged backgrounds who have been able to access online classes, the virtual classroom has been a poor substitute for teachers, with an unacknowledged toll on mental health. More importantly, a vast majority of India’s children has been shut out of learning by a marked digital and technological divide. For instance, the ASER phone survey of 60,000-odd students across rural India found that only about one-third had access to online learning; only 11 per cent could attend live online classes. This could have lasting consequences on learning deficits given that education, long before the pandemic struck, was hobbled by inequalities of income, caste and gender. The public school is a safety net, whose absence risks pushing children into child labour, child marriage or under-nutrition.
The return to normalcy must be guided by a willingness of the education system to give up its centralising impulse. The Centre, rightly, has let states decide their reopening schedules for themselves. The pandemic has exposed the limitations of top-down diktats, and shown the potential in empowering authorities at the local level. Decentralisation is also empowering, as teacher-led initiatives that came up with ways to reach out to students in the last year show. The task of the post-pandemic school is cut out: To restore and repair learning losses. It will need committed and empowered teachers. They must start now.