School closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have left a huge scar on the Indian education system. Students have spent one whole academic year without any consistent classroom instruction. With the upsurge of the virus across the country, this situation does not appear to become better any soon. 

To gauge the status and quality of online education provided by Zilla Parishad and Municipal Schools during school closures, Leadership for Equity (LFE), an organisation based in Pune, conducted a field study in six districts across Maharashtra in December of 2020. The LFE team visited remote areas within Maharashtra’s districts of Akola, Ahmednagar, Nashik, Pune, Satara, and Solapur. During these visits, 44 Focus Group Discussions (FGD) were held in-person with teachers and parents, reaching approximately 250 individuals. Additionally, 391 teacher surveys and 382 parent surveys were administered through telephonic, virtual, and in-person mediums. 

The final report, titled ‘School Closure and Education’, highlights various gaps in the current education scenario such as inequitable access to resources for students, insufficient reach of educational programs launched by the state government, and the limitations of remote learning during a pandemic. More importantly, it also reveals that utmost attention needs to be paid to parents who fear the  loss of learning opportunities for their children. The same goes for the future pain points likely to be faced by teachers, who will be held responsible for bridging the learning gaps caused by the pandemic. 

What Does the Report Reveal About Teachers and Parents Experiences This Past Year?

Interactions with teachers and parents revealed that learning losses primarily emerged because of the prolonged closure of schools. This resulted in a lack of student engagement with their study material. The learning programs launched by the government during the lockdown largely remained ineffective in helping  children achieve the required learning outcomes for their grades. 

Across all districts surveyed, teaching instruction was also irregular and hardly lasted for more than two hours a day on average. This reduction in learning hours led to a shift back to very basic exercises, with teachers focusing on reading and comprehension. Parents and teachers alike displayed deep concern over this state of affairs.

“There has been no learning overall this year. Children have lost touch with reading and writing due to school closures.”- A parent at a FGD held in Pune.

As a result, the fear of losing basic reading, writing and numeracy skills among children became a grave concern for parents, especially as daily practices of these skills had reduced due to school closures. 

Moreover, the current scenario—that expects the high attention and involvement of parents in supporting their child’s learning at home—appears unjust, as most parents are not equipped with the skills to do so themselves. In the report, close to 50 % of parents reported that they face technical difficulties teaching their children at home.

“Our children are living a ‘dying life’ without education. It would be better if they catch COVID-19 and die.” – A parent at a FGD held in Solapur.

The LFE report also highlighted efforts taken by teachers to ensure continuous learning for their students. This included distributing learning worksheets, continuously following-up with children, conducting home visits, as well as teaching through online mediums. Almost 95% of the parents surveyed were  satisfied with the efforts taken by teachers to support their child ‘s education. 

However, while parents reported that they were satisfied with the effort put in by teachers, there was still a notion among many parents in the FGDs that all this initiative has not actually resulted in learning.

“शिक्षण सामग्री कमी आहेत व फक्त साधने देऊन शिक्षण प्रभावी होत नाहीये. Online तितकस प्रभावी नाही” [The learning materials provided are less and giving out materials alone does not ensure learning. Online education is not at all impactful.] – A parent at a FGD held in Satara.

While parents expressed concerns regarding learning losses, teachers themselves were not far behind in narrating their anxieties with having to bridge vast learning gaps. 

“Our biggest fear is covering the loss of learning next year. Whatever we are doing is not helping children to move ahead in their grade levels.”- A teacher at a FGD in Nashik.

As per the LFE report, about 57 % teachers held assessments for their students. These assessments were mostly in the form of hand made worksheets that teachers created, printed, and distributed among children themselves. This suggests that assessments were largely dependent on what each individual teacher was confident of teaching and assessing their students on. This left much scope for inconsistency in the scoring, coverage of subjects, rigour, and reach of the tests among students.

A handmade assessment created by a teacher for students in Bhor taluka, Pune. | By Pranjali Hardikar.

This isn’t a case unique to Maharashtra alone. According to the 2020 study ‘Myths of Online Education’ published by Azim Premji University, 90 % of the 634 teachers surveyed reported that they could not conduct any meaningful assessments for their students. The remaining 10 % reported that conducting assessments was very difficult given the current scenario. The study—an attempt to understand the challenges of implementing online education—covered approximately 1,500 teachers and 400 parents across 26 districts of Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh Rajasthan, Karnatakam and Uttrakhand.  

Apart from the lack of evidence of student learning, teachers were also reluctant to accept the state administration’s stance of reducing the syllabus to support student learning. They felt that such a move would not help either teachers or children, given the amount of portions that would have to be caught up on in the following academic year.

“Even if the curriculum is reduced, it’ll be difficult to bridge the gap within a year. All this load is going to be shifted to us in the future. We are anxious as to how we will be able to complete this.” – A teacher at a FGD held in Ahmednagar.

How Do We Mitigate These Learning Losses?

The experiences of teachers and parents during Maharashtra’s lockdown highlight an urgent need to address the issue of learning loss among children. Field studies by Azim Premji University and the  2020 ASER report have further generated substantial evidence on the fact that learning losses are real across the country,  and will only increase if the lockdown continues. 

However, it is time that we shift our focus from the gravity of the problem to solutions, instead. LFE’s ‘School Closure and Education’ report suggests various strategies for the same.

  • Improving program implementation
The 14 learning programs identified by the LFE team while on the ground.

There were at least 14 different types of learning programs and initiatives by the state government operating across the six districts surveyed, as per ground observations by the LFE team.

The limitations in the implementation of these programs, however, were many. First off, their reach was limited. 

The LFE report found that major state level learning programs in Maharashtra—such as Abhyasmala, Tili Mili, or Swadhyay—did not reach more than 60% of the parents surveyed. Many parents had heard about the programs, but very few participated in the same. Many also reported that there were so many different initiatives that they could not keep track of most of them. This made them confused as to which would actually benefit their children the most. 

This leads into the second problem: that of communication. Basic awareness of the programs—such as their purpose, objectives, and how they would be beneficial for children—was found to be missing among most parents. 

For instance, when asked about the ‘Palak Mitra’ program, one of the teachers responded that it encouraged educated parents in the community to teach students. In reality, Palak Mitra is a program in which parents act as their childs’ ‘friend’ in order to support their social and emotional needs. If these concepts are vaguely understood at the teacher level, then their overall objective may get lost by the time they reach parents. 

The third problem was the inefficient use of mediums to reach parents. Communication mediums do play a major role in reaching communities. While WhatsApp was found to be the most established medium—with 91 % of surveyed teachers communicating with students through WhatsApp—television was underutilized as a learning medium. 

As per the LFE report, television was found to be the second most available device after smartphones in Maharashtra. However, the television based program Tili Mili was found to be popular among less than 40 % of the parents surveyed.  This suggests that even though television was a potential medium of significant reach, it did not impact student learning much.

So, the first basic suggestion to the state government would be to improve the implementation of COVID-19 learning programs at three levels: reach, communication, and medium. Clarity on the purpose and impact of the program needs to be ensured for teachers as they relay this information to  parents. Further, making use of established mediums such as WhatsApp and television could help boost program reach among beneficiaries.

  • Designing in-person or blended programs

Despite  a strong  push for using ed-tech and digital technologies in class by the government and philanthropies, ground research noted that the preference for traditional mediums of education still remains high among various stakeholders. 

Most parents and teachers preferred in-person classroom based learning over online education. Traditional learning materials—such as textbooks—were reported to be the most useful learning resource by 81 % of parents, followed by the 50% of parents who stood by printed worksheets. Digital learning resources, on the other hand,  were found useful by less than 30 % of parents in the LFE report. 

Teachers further highlighted eight different types of pedagogical challenges related to online education that made  it an ineffective medium for holistic learning. These include challenges such as the unsuitability of online mediums to teach subjects like Math, teaching young children, keeping students engaged, and controlling student behavior in online class.

Clearly, a program that blends both technology and an in-person teaching touch would be much more conducive to impactful teaching and  learning. This can be achieved by going beyond looking at teachers as mere distributors of the program—and designing better roles for them in any given program instead.

  • Increasing family engagement in child education

Engaging the parents and families of children as active collaborators and contributors in their education and well-being has always been something that progressive educators have advocated for. The need for such an approach has become even more pronounced during the pandemic—when learning reached children primarily through their parents. 

However, on the flip side, the pre-existing distance between parents and schools reduced when learning entered living rooms during the pandemic. This development needs to be strengthened, to benefit learning from home in the long term.

Contextualising well researched international frameworks—such as Dr. Karen Mapp’s dual capacity building framework—to India can be a good starting point towards ushering in healthy family engagement in learning to ensure equitable education for all children. The framework is a blueprint for family engagement initiatives designed to fit the particular contexts in which they are carried out.

  • Remedial Learning Through Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN) Programs
A child studying in rural Nashik. | Courtesy of Pranjali Hardikar.

The learning loss has setback foundational skills of children. Remedial teaching would be required to bridge skills that children have either forgotten or not yet developed. 

Such programs would also be aligned with the 2020 National Education Policy’s (NEP) recommendations—while also putting the state on track to become a forerunner in implementing it. 

Some major recommendations of the NEP to implement FLN include filling up teacher vacancies and developing a three month play-based preparation module for all Grade I students (to be developed by the NCERT and SCERTs). The creation of a national repository of learning resources through DIKSHA and ensuring child physical and mental wellbeing through adequate nutrition, are also key parts of this mission.

  • Bridging the Digital Divide

No pre-existing barrier has become more pronounced during the pandemic than the digital divide. Even though 77% of parent households surveyed seem to possess at least one smartphone, 80% parents reported the unavailability of smartphones during their child’s learning time. Additionally, 85% of surveyed parents reported competition over who would use the smartphone given that one device is shared among all members of the household. 

Data Sources: Centre for Reinventing Public Education; Education Week Market Brief, July 2020. | Originally compiled by McKinsey.

This reflects the issue that the availability of a device in the household doesn’t always translate into it being accessible to the child. 

Both civil society and the government need to recognise that technology is not just a device to simply have in a household, but that it is an essential tool of enabling children to learn effectively. Only this understanding will form an effective foundation to leverage the increased adoption of technology among citizens, teachers, and even the government. As McKinsey shows, other federal countries like the United States have made similar strides, which can be paralleled and adapted by state governments in India too.

The upsurge of COVID-19 cases in 2021 does not bode well for what parents and teachers desire the most—the reopening of schools. As the second wave rages, it is highly likely that schools will remain closed for the better part of the coming academic year. Building on the experiences of last year, we need to prepare better to cope with the future challenges of learning losses  among children. Perhaps focusing on some of the suggestions above could be a good start.


Featured image: A field photo taken by the LFE team in Bhor taluka, Pune; courtesy of Pranjali Hardikar.

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