Covid-19 can be a boon, if we do the right things for children, as we reopen schools

Once schools are properly open and attendance has stabilised, the government must take on a focussed 100-day programme when at least in primary schools, we put aside grade-wise curriculum and focus entirely on re-building foundational skills.

The government had stipulated October 15 as the date after which reopening of schools could be considered in a graded manner. A detailed set of recommendations and points to consider in the reopening decision has been provided, which places safety and security of children and teachers as the highest priority. Unlike our usual academic documents, concern with children’s social and emotional well-being features prominently.

All of India, not only children, teachers or parents, but family members and communities, everyone wants “every child in school” eventually. Everyone wants this to happen safely. Once children start going to school regularly, it will herald a return of “normalcy” in a way that no other event can. But designing the process of school-reopening well could provide new opportunities that can be tested in the next few months to see if they have the potential to become enduring features of our school system.

First, school systems are often centralised and hierarchical. Many key decisions related to the functioning of the school are taken at a level that is far from ground realities. Yet, in today’s context, local conditions and community perceptions are going to play a decisive role in when and how schools can open. The current situation provides a valuable opportunity for local inputs to be absorbed. If done well, the process of school reopening can bring the community closer together. Local support can go a long way, well beyond the crisis, in bringing in new resources and investment into schools.

Editorial | Teacher’s day & night

Second, in a normal year, schools open all at once. On a given day, gates are unlocked, doors open and children and teachers arrive all at once. But this year is different. In many states, villages and cities, teachers have been going to school already. As we think about a gradual phased plan to bring children back, it is possible to visualise a “warming up” period, to enable children and families to get “ready” for school.

Teachers can set up individual meetings with parents in rotation, to find out how the family has been coping and to suggest “school readiness” activities that can be done at home. Parents, especially those who do not have much education, have often not been involved in their child’s school life. During this period of school closure, parents have had to take the responsibility of children’s learning through whatever was possible at home. Their efforts and initiatives need to be recognised and celebrated by schools and teachers. Gradual school re-opening can be a good time for parents and teachers to interact and form a closer relationship.

Third, once teachers agree and parents consent, children can begin to return to school by rotation. Activities can be planned in a way that teachers can reconnect meaningfully, one by one, with children. If children come in rotation, whether by grade or within the same class, there will be fewer children at any one time in school. This means that teachers can give more individual attention to each child. Finding out how the child has been, how the child’s family has coped in this crisis, is as important as finding out whether the child has had any “learning loss”.

Available data from years of the ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) indicate that at least in rural areas, for many children, basic skills of reading and arithmetic are worryingly low. The ASER figures, which are widely quoted, state that even after five years of schooling, of the children in Standard V, almost 50 per cent could not read a simple short story (at Class II level of difficulty) or do a simple two-digit numerical subtraction problem with borrowing (a skill expected from Class II level children). After six months or more of school closure, children who were just learning to read or getting the hang of arithmetic operations may have forgotten how to do so. Teachers need to quickly understand the child’s level and suggest activities. If activities are simple and explained clearly, parents can do similar activities with children at home.

Starting as early as Standard I, curriculum expectations move at a fast pace. Teachers are expected to teach from textbooks prescribed for the class. And so, if a child is not at the level of the class textbook, instruction, however good, goes over her head and the child gets left behind. Nobel prize winning professors, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, call this phenomenon “teaching to the top of the class”. The ASER data clearly shows that in Standard V, only 20-30 per cent children gain from teaching at the class level. Clearly, something needs to be done to help all other children “catch up”. This “catch up” was needed even before COVID. But now may be the best time to get this done.

Reading and basic arithmetic are key building blocks for the foundation of any child’s educational journey. Pratham’s ASER reports for the last 15 years have pointed to the need across India to build these foundational skills. The National Education Policy 2020 also underlines the importance of foundational skills that must be built in primary school.

For over two decades, Pratham has evolved an approach called “Teaching-at-the-Right-Level”. In this model, children who have reached Standard III or higher but have not learned to read or do arithmetic operations are helped to acquire these skills in a short period of time without using too many extra resources. The approach has been tried and tested by communities and governments and found to be effective.

Once schools are properly open and attendance has stabilised, the government must take on a focussed 100-day programme when at least in primary schools, we put aside grade-wise curriculum and focus entirely on re-building foundational skills. The goal must be to ensure that all children, in Standard III and higher, are able to read fluently and do basic arithmetic with confidence. Positive energy is unleashed by children’s progress; it is vital in rebuilding. Learning to read is very visible. Children enjoy their own progress. Children’s progress gives teachers and parents the confidence of being able to together take the next steps in the educational journey of the child.

Instead of being a crisis, COVID can turn out to be a boon, if we do the right things for children and with families, as we reopen schools.

This article first appeared in the print edition on October 17 under the title “How school reopens.” The writer is CEO Pratham Education Foundation.

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