India Can't Keep Citing the Pandemic to Deprive Children of Education

It has already been a year and a half since the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted education. It is high time that governments come up with innovative solutions to deal with the emerging situation.

Listen to this article:

July 31, 2021 marked the first anniversary of the National Education Policy 2020. This year also marks the 11th anniversary of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education, 2009 (‘RTE Act’) coming into force. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has put the project of universal education in the state of Karnataka on the back burner, which we must quickly course correct.

The right to education was the first fundamental right inserted separately in the constitution of India after its adoption in 1950. Article 21A was added in 2002, through the 86th Constitutional Amendment. This RTE Act creates an obligation on the state to provide free and compulsory education to children in the age group of 6-14 in a neighbourhood school.

Also read: Reimagining a Post-COVID School for India

Besides the RTE Act and the constitution of India, various judgments of the Supreme Court have recognised the right to education and expanded its scope. These rights are also contained in international instruments such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, and are also part of the Sustainable Development Goals. 

There is a legal, socio-political and economic need to continue providing education through the pandemic.

Crisis of children’s education 

The pandemic has disrupted children’s education in every aspect. Due to the lockdown from March 25, 2020, schools have been shut, and education halted. Since then, schools have either never opened for some age groups, or opened intermittently.

In India, according to a UNICEF report released in June 2020, school closures impacted 247 million children in elementary and secondary education and 28 million children in pre-schools and Anganwadi centres. This is in addition to more than six million children who were already out of school before the COVID-19 crisis.

Lockdown and school closures have their own justification: to ensure the health of the public. However, while a temporary closure can be justified, a sustained failure to provide schooling is a clear violation of the right to education.

File photo of Schoolgirls making their way to school through a vegetable field early morning in New Delhi December 11, 2013. Photo: Reuters/Ahmad Masood/Files.

The Azim Premji Foundation’s field study has found that children have lost or forgotten some foundational abilities. For example, 71% of students in Class 2 have lost reading fluency, potentially leading to adverse impacts on future generations.

In Karnataka, the high court is hearing a suo motu PIL (WP 15768/2013) on out-of-school children, in which the Azim Premji Foundation has intervened. During this, the court ordered a household survey to be conducted, which began in December 2020.

While it is not yet complete, the findings are a cause for concern. With less than 90% of the survey complete in rural areas, it was found that 33,344 children had dropped out of school and 9,716 children had never enrolled.

In urban areas, with less than 79% of the survey complete, 8,718 children had dropped out of school and 4,842 children had never enrolled. The figures do not include children living in Bangalore, which is one-sixth of the state’s population, since the BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike) has not been able to find enumerators to conduct the survey.

The Karnataka government has been proactive in making this survey comprehensive by covering all children aged 0-18. It has also gathered information on the reasons children are not going to school, which will be useful in formulating policy responses after the survey is complete.

There is a pressing need to ensure the BBMP allocates the funds necessary to hire survey enumerators so that data to deliver targeted solutions can be collected.  The survey was scheduled to start on August 1, 2021 in Bangalore. If we project the current figures, a conservative estimate would mean at least 78,000 children are out-of-school in Karnataka alone. It is worth noting that even if children are enrolled in school, it does not necessarily mean they are receiving continuous education during the pandemic.

Also read: Modi Govt’s Inability to Send Children Back to School Will Affect India’s Future

Because of the precarity of work during the pandemic, migrant children have been particularly marginalised from the education system. The state of Karnataka has a policy to implement the right to education for migrant children. Even the RTE Act has recognised this special need in Section 9(k). This has also prompted a petition in the Supreme Court arguing for the implementation of the right to education, among other rights. However, no significant hearings have taken place in this matter.

Investing in infrastructure and technology: A legal obligation

While elite private schools, mostly catering to rich families have been able to continue education online, others have been left behind. Many budget private schools are on the verge of shutdown over the financial constraints due to the pandemic.

The State of the Sector Report on Private Schools in India 2020 has shown that though these budget private schools attempted to continue education through online classes, parents and students found it difficult to adapt. Students from 64% of households are mostly dependent on mobile data and 50% of the parents highlighted that poor internet connectivity is hampering the learning process. Students are left to learn by themselves, at most helped by messaging, or TV/radio broadcasts.

As per the Household Social Consumption: Education(2017-2018) survey released in July 2020, just 8% of the rural population have access to the internet in Karnataka. This is just slightly below 14% across rural areas in India. While might have increased since then, internet penetration is still not universal and connections are not reliable.

It is an obligation on the part of the state to provide digital solutions under the legal framework. Article 21A says that education is compulsory for all. So, the state must find solutions even during the pandemic. Section 8(d) of the RTE Act requires governments to provide the necessary infrastructure and learning equipment.

Representational image of an online class. Photo: PTI

In Avinash Mehrotra v. Union of India, the Supreme Court held that the right to education includes the right to education in a safe environment. The state cannot compromise on education. Instead, it is legally obligated to find ways to deliver education safely ensuring the health of children.

In Ashok Kumar Thakur v. Union of India, the Supreme Court pointed out that the right to quality education cannot be a reality if governments have not allocated enough funds to achieve it. That may include uniforms or books; but in today’s situation, the answer seems to be providing smartphones or internet and electricity connections. The court also recognised the possibility of incentivising attendance by providing financial support to students. This is especially important for poor families struck by the economic crisis during the pandemic, where the alternative might be to push children into child labour.

The Karnataka high court, in Radha M v. State of Karnataka, has recently ordered the state government to allocate funds and devise a scheme to provide textbooks, notebooks and technology necessary to deliver education, if schools do not reopen. A fundamental right cannot be suspended due to the lack of funds.

The high court has also asked the government to consider reopening schools. An expert committee report has found that the transmission risk between children and from children to adults is low. On this basis, the Karnataka government plans to reopen schools for some grades from August 23, 2021.

The Supreme Court has recently passed similar directions in a suo moto case, In Re: Contagion of COVID-19 Virus in Children Protection Homes. Governments were ordered to provide cash incentives to the caretakers of children in vulnerable situations, such as children in conflict with the law or orphans. It has also directed the state to provide equipment and arrange for tutors. Such an approach should be recognised as necessary for all children.

The RTE Act envisions a collaborative approach with elected local leaders, teachers and parents through ‘School Management Committees’ (SMCs). SMCs can be leveraged to bridge the gap between schools and parents to ensure the continuity of children’s education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

States’ response to education crisis during the pandemic 

The Central government has taken various initiatives to mitigate the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education of school children. Some of these initiatives are DIKSHA (Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing), Manodarpan and All India Radio. Many State governments have also taken innovative steps to ensure there is minimum disruption in children’s education.

For instance, the Chhattisgarh government has launched the ‘Education at your Doorstep Initiative’ to connect teachers and students by providing online access to educational content from the comfort of their homes. Madhya Pradesh has started an initiative of ‘Radio School’ under which all channels would broadcast special educational radio programmes to provide regular study to students of thestate at home during the lockdown period. The Karnataka government has tried to bridge the digital divide through ‘Vidyagama Programme’ that is aimed at imparting education at the doorstep. However, this programme was also halted as many students and teachers contracted COVID-19. The state government in collaboration with Prasar Bharti has also launched Chandana Vahini classes to continue online education for children living in rural areas.

Representational image. Photo: UNICEF/Tapash Paul

The National Education Policy 2020 was released one year ago amidst the pandemic. In a 66-page document, only one and a half pages talk about ‘online and digital education’.  The policy did not include any substantive measures to facilitate online learning for rural children. There is no excuse for policymakers to say that they could not foresee the situation of school closures and lack of accessibility for rural and migrant kids.

Also read: COVID-19 Has Undone Years of Progress for Adolescent Girls

However, there is no large-scale government data available on whether children can access and use these mechanisms. As per the ASER 2020 report, 32% of children with smartphone access had not received any reading materials.

Way forward

Governments should prioritise implementing the fundamental right to education for children during the pandemic. It has already been a year and a half since children are out of school. Instead of relying on ‘public health’ to violate fundamental rights, governments should now take an approach that balances public health and the right to education. The state is not only legally obligated to do this but in fact doing so would improve the socio-economic condition of the nation.

Policymakers and government institutions need to prepare policy responses with respect to education keeping in mind that this kind of crisis can happen again. Maybe this time the pandemic was an excuse for not enforcing fundamental right to education. But what about the next pandemic?

Ritambhara Singh and Mihir Rajamane are with the Centre for Law and Policy Research, Bengaluru.