Here's How We Can Gear up to Open Schools After the Lockdown

It is essential that teachers don't rush into completing the syllabi and recognise the need for the emotional healing of students.

India announced a complete lockdown at the end of March 2020 in response to the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus. The announcement gave a mere four-hour notice for the impending lockdown.

Schools across the country were shut. While we’re still unaware as to when school will reopen, there are several notifications and guidelines from the authorities regarding the development of a truncated syllabus and instructions to children in primary classes to stay at home for a few more months.

Children of all social groups and classes are bombarded with messages about the danger of the coronavirus and, how they should remain indoors, even as we have been witnessing thousands of families walking home in the hot summer sun, crowded trains and buses and the most heart wrenching of all – hunger and hopelessness.

Families are thrown out by landlords because they cannot pay rent, employers firing their workers and domestic workers being treated as untouchables by the same people who depended on them for housework and child care. Teachers in small private schools have lost their jobs and contract teachers in government are afraid of being thrown out. Many of them have not been paid for several months. There have been reports of former teachers lining up for MGNREGA work.

India has not seen this kind of trauma since the painful cross-migration during Partition in 1947.

Children are traumatised, confused and not able to understand what is happening around them. Those from very poor families in both rural and urban areas have not only been cut off from learning processes but have been deprived of the mid-day meal which sustained many of them.

While the rich and the middle classes with access to computers and smart phones have access to online teaching from their schools, the vast majority of children, especially those studying in government schools and low-cost private schools, have no such opportunities. Therefore, it is quite ironic that a substantial portion of the discussions on education today are about online learning and the pros and cons of it. There little discussion or debate about the impact of school closures on the most marginalised and poor children.

Also read: Is Social Distancing Feasible for a Majority of Schools in India?

Sadly, not even the government or associated institutions like NCERT and SCERTs are talking about what they could do to ease the path back to school and address the trauma and fear among children. There is also very little thought on how rural schools are expected to cope with returning workers and their families.

Nor are these institutions showing any concern about the physical, mental and emotional state of children who have undergone the trauma of reverse migration from a metro city to their village or the painful journey, hunger and malnutrition they experienced. This is an illustration of how some groups are invisible in the process of decision-making, during, before or after a crisis.

What are the issues that merit urgent attention immediately after lockdown is withdrawn?

Children who would be returning to school and the children who will be enrolling afresh in rural schools need support – psychological and emotional – to enable them to get back into the rhythm of learning. Nandita Choudhry, an important voice in the area of child development, reminds us that some children may have experienced the illness or death of a family member, some may have lived with the reality or threat of displacement, and some have travelled hundreds of miles from cities from where they were rudely evicted. Even for those who may not have experienced any direct trauma or abuse, the lurking fear of the pandemic must have had a significant impact.

Without the capacity to fully grasp the situation and its outcomes, children have been impacted in direct and inconspicuous ways. Learning to live with fear and uncertainty and watching news reports with scenes beyond their comprehension, will have an impact on children of all ages. These are all issues that schools will need to handle as children leave their homes to return to school. It is the responsibility of school teachers and administrators to enact strategies to support children.

Therefore, schools need to plan for structured activities and interactions with children, ideally in small groups, to let them talk and express their pent up emotions and feelings. For this to happen, teachers need to be sensitised and trained to refrain from rushing into completing the curriculum or jumping straight into formal teaching. A considerable amount of time may have to be set aside consciously to heal and to help each other, both the student and the teachers.

A schoolgirl reads from a textbook at an open-air school in New Delhi, India, November 2014. Photo: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

I remember that after the 2001 earthquake in Kutch and the 2004 Tsunami in coastal South India, teachers talked about how they had to provide time and space for children to talk. They saw fear and anxiety in the eyes of the children. A fellow educationist Subir Shukla said that children would need ‘emotional rehabilitation and in order to do that schools must prepare for small groups listening, talking and play acting exercises. A free-unstructured space where children can unwind.

Also read: What a Survey of Children in Bihar Revealed About Online Schooling

It is important to address the crisis and children’s experiences directly through conversations and presentations, but even more importantly, indirectly through artistic and creative expression which are known to be very effective in addressing deeper anxieties. Engaging children in making the school environment more child-friendly, preparing and putting up paintings and posters made by children, stories written by students and teachers and other artwork would provide much-needed space and time to start the healing process.

Similarly, singing, sports and group activities could also help. What is absolutely essential is that the teachers should not be asked to rush into completing the syllabus. Educational administration should acknowledge the need for a time for healing – and this needs to be communicated loudly and clearly to all schools – government and private. If such guidelines are indeed prepared and issued, government schools may follow – however inadequately. The private sector may not respond at all and push children back into formal teaching-learning processes with little regard for the children’s mental and emotional state.

Once this is underway and the process gathers momentum, teachers need to be prepared to organise accelerated learning classes – to help children refresh what they know and help them reach a level where they are ready for the grade-specific curriculum. There is a lot of experience in India – especially from the bridge courses of yesteryears, Mahila Shikshan Kendra and KGBV (in the early stages).

It would be valuable to re-visit those experiences – both by the government and NGOs – and help teachers work on appropriate accelerated learning programmes for their children. This could be done for a cluster of 15 to 20 schools, where all teachers are brought together to talk about their own experiences and also what they think would be the situation of children. This could be followed by a structured workshop to help them acquire the ability to work with children with love and empathy.

It is important to acknowledge that the majority of children in government schools and private schools that cater to the poor have not had access to any online learning. Learning levels among children has been flagged as a serious issue even before the lockdown. Teaching children at the right level is known to make a big difference. Equally, many children may have experienced extreme hardship, domestic violence, long journeys and seen the adults in their families fearful and distressed. Therefore, a well-planned and well-designed accelerated learning programme would be essential – once the healing process is winding down. This will be particularly challenging in rural schools in states that have seen a surge in reverse migration from the cities.

Children – boys and girls – in higher classes face the danger of dropping out. Given the economic hardships, loss of employment of parents and distress reverse migration, older children may have to work as daily wagers. Older girls not only have to take on more household responsibilities including fetching water and firewood, grazing cattle etc.; any economic downturn would mean fewer financial resources with families.

Also read: Lockdown Schooling Is No Substitute for Education

Often the first causality in the house is the girl’s education – as secondary education costs money, even in government schools. Older boys may be forced to quit school and get some work to supplement the family income. The larger education community, the government and civil society organisations working with schools may have to design programmes to provide income support to ensure that children do not drop out.

We may also have to allow older children to be irregular and support them with evening programmes to help them cope with their studies. The non-governmental sector could assist government schools in organising such programmes for older children. This would perhaps be one of the biggest challenges – as the fiscal situation of most state government is precarious. Philanthropic organisations and donors may have to come forward to provide scholarships or other forms of income support.

While there is little data or information at present, hunger and malnutrition are said to be on the rise. Children need mid-day meal schemes a lot more now. Combined with a school-health initiative, we need to gear up to provide supplementary nutrition, health check-up and medical advice to children attending school. School heads and teachers may have to work with the panchayat, the local PHC or Sub Centre and the ICDS programme to design a holistic health-nutrition programme that can address the impact of hunger and malnutrition. Local sourcing of vegetables, eggs, pulses, cooking oil could help augment the mid-day meal programme. Maybe the time has come to consider providing breakfast to children when they come to school in the morning.

This demands local and context-specific planning – one that is done at each panchayat or school cluster. Teachers and school heads may have to transform themselves into counsellors and caregivers. Over the last two to three decades, government school teachers have been vilified and seen as work shirkers.

This change in perception happened because of the gradual erosion of the status of the school teacher in our society. They are blamed for the learning deficit and in turn, teachers point to the child’s family and economic status as the root cause of poor learning. Research studies on teacher absenteeism, advocacy for contract teachers as the preferred ‘cost effective’ alternative to secure employment and greater privatisation have steadily eroded both our trust in teachers as well as their social standing.

Indian school children eat their free midday meal at a primary school. Photo: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

This narrative needs to be countered effectively. A recent book of case studies of outstanding teachers by S. Giridhar shows that there are thousands of teachers who not only work hard, but who truly believe all children can learn. As Giridhar puts it:

“If I summarise the core beliefs and pedagogic practices that we saw in these classrooms, the foremost would be the teachers’ belief that ‘every child can learn; the responsibility is ours.’ These teachers try to make the learning experience interesting for every child and respect the existing knowledge they bring to the classroom, using it to build new knowledge… These teachers help children connect concepts with the world around them…”

Trusting teachers, giving them greater autonomy in the school and the classroom and, above all, listening and understanding their problems is essential to encourage them to do their best. We have known all along that teacher belief is perhaps the strongest predictor of an effective learning environment. While we have always known this, most in-service teacher education programmes have focused on specific subject knowledge – popularly known as “hard spots”. Yes, teachers, who are also part of our society, have strong beliefs and prejudices.

Also read: Lockdown Is Disrupting a Generation’s Education. What Can Be Done?

What we need is a systemic effort to address them, alongside the problems that teachers face. This lockdown has not only been traumatic for children – teachers (like the rest of us) have also been affected. Many of them have had to deal with problems in their family and their community. They may also be scared of the virus infecting them and their families. Before schools re-open it would be absolutely essential to bring teachers together in groups (maybe at the cluster or block levels) and give them space to voice their fears and concerns. When they are emotionally ready, they need to be given the skills required to reach out and work with children with empathy and understanding. Teachers need training and concrete strategies to work with children as discussed in the preceding paragraphs. This work needs to start before school reopen – so that the school heads and teachers are ready when children arrive in schools.

The big question is whether our governments – centre and states – have even thought about how they will open the schools and what they need to do. Some state government officers say that they are preparing for a surge in enrolment, some others seem to be focusing on shortening the syllabus and some others are more worried about examinations.

I didn’t hear even one of them talking about the emotional and psychosocial needs of children and teachers. Nor did I hear or read anything about what kind of detailed planning that would be required before schools reopen. Maybe, at this point in time, there is little mind-space among bureaucrats and political leaders. One more sudden knee-jerk decision to open schools without doing the necessary groundwork would be disastrous.

Holistic and meaningful education has been neglected for a long time. Syllabus, curriculum, examination and related issues have been on the radar – the multifaceted nature of education, the social, psychological, physical and overall well-being of students and teachers have not been a matter of concern. This could also be a good time to address fundamental issues related to a holistic approach to child development and meaningful education – an educational process that can empower children to negotiate the world their live in with courage and confidence.

Vimala Ramachandran, formerly professor in NIEPA New Delhi, is a researcher who primarily works on school education, and education and equity issues.

Nandita Choudhry, Kameshwari Jandhyala and Subir Shukla gave inputs for this article.