NEELU COULD EASILY belt on the multiplication tables up to 26 when she was in third grade. She had also almost learned division. She was able to read and write basic Hindi sentences and could also understand some English words. It was two years ago.
Now Neelu, 10, a Dalit girl from Nagla Shyam village, Bharatpur district, Rajasthan, is in fifth grade. But, she can only recite up to nine tables. She can barely handle addition and reads Hindi sentences with difficulty. Aman, his classmate, is even worse off: he only remembers tables up to eight and has completely forgotten how to read. “Learning levels for Neelu and almost all of his classmates have declined by four to five years over the past two years as lockdowns have taken them away from education,” said Suresh Sharma, director of the Nagla Shyam Primary School at THE WEEK.
About 750 km away, in Nogawa, Meghnagar block, Jhabua district, Madhya Pradesh, dominated by tribes, 11-year-old Nisha Dewal, who was a fourth-year student in 2019-2020, did not join her school during its reopening in September 2021. She has forgotten all she has learned and her parents, both day laborers, are unable to focus on her education as they struggle to care for their six children.
Siraj, 12, from Ghazipur settlement in East Delhi, dropped out of school during lockdown due to lack of access to online courses and declining family income; his family depends on waste collection. He was found picking up litter by volunteers from the Association for Social Justice and Research and convinced to attend classes at its Children’s Activity Center (CAC). But Siraj is still out of school and continues to pick up trash to support her family.
Wahid, 16, the third of six children in a daily betting family in Trikolbal, Baramulla, Kashmir, was also forced to drop out of class 10. He started weaving shawls to help his family but was inducted into the local CAC by volunteers. of Jammu and Kashmir Association of Social Workers (JKASW). He works and studies now; he hopes to sit for class 10 exams next year.
In Telangana, Kommu Silamma, a ninth grade student from Janumpally village on the outskirts of Nallamala forests in Nagarkurnool district, averted what she calls a disaster. With the help of a team from the NGO Shramika Vikasa Kendram (SVK), she managed to convince her farmer father not to marry her. It helped that Silamma was already part of the SVK children’s collective. “But other girls from the 52 villages in Nagarkurnool and Wanaparthy districts where we work weren’t so lucky,” said Laxman Rao, founder of SVK, which is supported by Child Rights and You (CRY). “We are aware of at least 33 child marriages in these villages over the past year.”
These are just a few examples of how children, especially those under 12, have suffered during the pandemic. Experts, parents, teachers and activists all agree that children are arguably the biggest victims of the changes necessitated by Covid-19. “Their play spaces and times, as well as peer interaction, have all but disappeared,” said child rights advocate Priti Mahara. “The closure of schools has left them with huge learning losses [because of the digital divide]. Children from marginalized sections are naturally more likely to be expelled from the formal education system and become victims of child labor and child marriage.
Puja Marwaha, CEO of CRY India, said the scarcity of data was a big challenge. “Large-scale studies of the impact of Covid on children have yet to be carried out,” she said. “But, yes, local-level experiences and anecdotal evidence reflect their heightened vulnerability.” She added that a comprehensive, real-time database of child development indicators would help assess losses and enable interventions.
The available data is as chilling as the anecdotal evidence. According to UNICEF, the closure of 1.5 million schools in India in 2020 affected 247 million children. A recent report by UNICEF India indicated that only 60% of Indian students were using distance learning resources and even among them almost 80% said they were learning less or much less than at home. school.
A study by the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS) in Madhya Pradesh found that 67% of children worked regularly on family farms or in shops. A BGVS study of the situation in Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram found that 56% had not taken online courses at all (25%) or had done so irregularly (31%). A report by UNICEF, the World Bank and UNESCO cited data from Karnataka indicating that third-grade students able to perform subtraction fell from 24% in 2018 to 16% in 2020.
In Kashmir, the distress was compounded by the fact that schools closed after the removal of Article 370 in August 2019. They only opened for two weeks in March 2020 before the pandemic hit. “This long school closure has affected the learning levels of all children, especially children in communities that rely primarily on public schools,” said Ashfaq Ahmed Mattoo of JKASW. “Although the Education Department has intermittently run community classes, radio classes and online classes, access is a major issue, and these cannot replace regular school.”
Another challenge was the unpreparedness of teachers to deliver lessons online, especially in the case of primary school teachers in public schools. According to a 2019 survey by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India and Primus Partners, only 17% of public school teachers said they had been trained to deliver online lessons. In private schools, this figure was 43.8%.
Besides learning, school closures have affected the general developmental needs of children. For disadvantaged children, the disruption of midday meals was a big nutritional setback. The psychosocial well-being of the children was impacted. In a study conducted jointly by CRY and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, 48.7% of children surveyed said their daily routine had “changed a lot”; 41.9 percent said they “felt worried”; 45.2 percent said they were bored; 30% said they were confused and 30% said they were scared.
While the poor were hard hit, suffering, in one or another of its many forms, had to be dealt with across social strata. For example, the mother of a five-year-old girl from a wealthy family in Delhi notices disturbing things about her daughter. The little one is afraid of traffic noise and reluctant to cross busy roads when she is out. “I think the forced confinement for two crucial years of her childhood really affected her,” said the mother, who juggles her high-profile job at home and the needs of her children. The girl has yet to make any friends and has virtually no exposure to the outside world, added the mother, who requested anonymity.
“The psychosocial and developmental impact of Covid-19 on children, although fortunately not yet affecting them much health-wise, is likely to be long-term and teachers and parents will need skills to handle it,” Mahara said. “As we prepare for the likely next wave of unvaccinated children, the focus (on their well-being) must be extremely precise.”
All children’s names have been changed to protect their identities.