By Birendra Dash
With spread of covid-19 pandemic worldwide, the education sector has been badly affected. The UNESCO and the World Bank estimates 1.3 billion students worldwide are deprived of right to education due to the pandemic. This comprises 70 percent of the world’s student population. The government of Nepal immediately closed education institutions including examination of SEE, 10+2 and higher education for uncertainty issuing a press release on 18 March 2020. This has severely affected schooling of over 16 million children of 35,000 schools.
During lockdown, most of the private schools in urban areas have started virtual classes through Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and Google Classroom. My son who studies in grade 4 in one of the reputed private school has been participating in 8 to 10 lessons per week. The school had informed parents on 19 March stating that virtual class will begins from April 20. My spouse, who is a teacher of a private school, is also teaching online through Zoom software. The online class and internet facility have enabled the students to engage productively in teaching-learning activities.
But, the scenario is different in rural and semi-urban areas. My cousins from Sarlahi district are unable to access formal education. The private schools in the district have not been able to run online classes as every household does not have internet access. They stay at home watching television programs, playing mobile phones and engaging in agricultural activities. This is just an example of how children are deprived of formal education during the lockdown. Moreover, the educational activities of public schools are more likely to be closed for a longer period of time.
The effects of non-involvement of children in learning at school is likely to have serious effect on children.
First, the learning achievement of the children of a public school seems to be more affected. The closer of schools for a longer period of time will challenge school to cover school curriculum. Covering curriculum has been always challenging to public schools even in normal education calendar. With the spread of the virus (now in 72 districts), the curriculum is still not available in rural areas. Delivering textbook on time has been always challenging in past. The none delivery of books and less education activities are likely to result poor learning achievement.
Second, the closure of school for longer period will result higher drop-out with increases in child marriage and child labors. The evidences show that child marriage has increased after devastating April 2015 earthquake. Due to the COVID-19, wage-based laborers have lost their job and are struggling to get enough food. This is likely to push children of marginalized population into child labor, child trafficking and child marriage to secure livelihood of families
Third, the closer of school and negative impact on food security of vulnerable families have increased vulnerability of malnutrition of marginalized children. WEP estimates 320 million primary school students in 120 countries worldwide are deprived of school meals because of the corona pandemic. In Nepal, children were used to get day meal at public school which was supplementary to maintain nutrition. Death of Melar Sada in Saptari due to lack of food shows that families of most marginalized population is not able to get enough food. They are dreaming to have two normal meals a day. In this context, children from ultra-poor families deprived of access to food. This is likely to increase malnutrition and health issues in school children.
Fourth, I have seen my relative children getting afraid of being infected, worrying about food supply and even death. My 9-years-old son tracks the COVID-19 data on his tablet and interprets the continuous surge in the number of infected people as risk for us as well. He expressed his fear saying “what if everybody dies, what if food supply stopped…we will die virus or starvation…”. By nature, children of this age like to play with children outside which is important for physical, mental and social development. The COVID-19 limited these developments.
The government of Nepal has recently endorsed a guideline ‘School Student Alternative Teaching Learning Guideline 2020’ to start distance and alternative education from 14 June 2020. The government has planned to provide online classes for children with devices and internet. Likewise, the children with access to radio and television will receive education through radio and television programs. The children with no access to devices and internet will be reached though volunteer teachers and will be guided by parents. The plan includes delivery of text books to all children by June 14.
The distance education through radio and television started recently for the SEE appearing students in the Kathmandu Valley. However, the children in rural areas have been deprived of such facilities. Schools lack human and technological assets to run the class. On the other hand, children lack internet facilities and devices. The state governments and local government in semi-urban and rural areas have not yet taken appropriate initiatives to tackle with this problem. Parents of marginalized population such as Madhesi Dalits lacks skills and knowledge to guide their children. Most of them are either illiterate or have less knowledge to help learning of their kids. Similarly, non-recruitment of volunteer teachers yet is challenging to start the education from 14 June 2020. Thus, it can be claimed that government has not formulated pro-poor policies.
Marginalized population’s no access to current education system, inferior learning achievement, high drop-out, malnutrition, increased child marriage, child trafficking and child labor are likely to have serious effect on school children. This will further increase inequalities between privileged and under-privileged children. Being a socialist country, it is a right time to develop free education system like in Finland and Sri Lanka in order to make equal and equitable access to quality education for all. The schools in rural areas need internet facilities and devices to cope up with current situation. Distribution of learning tablets to school children can help in modernization of education which will not only reduce dependency on printed books, but also provide children better opportunity to access online learning resources. Furthermore, duty-bearers needs to adopt integrated approach for socio-economic recovery of most vulnerable children in order to reduce severe negative effect on school children.
The author is a student of M. Phil in Development Studies at Kathmandu University School of Education. He can also be contacted at [email protected]