From the time it burst upon an unsuspecting world in late 2019, COVID-19 has taken a firm grip on the whole globe. We’re in the midst of 2021, but the corona wave does not seem to be abating. Till now, as many as 213 countries and territories have registered COVID-19 cases. As of 20 May 2021, there have been 164,523,894 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 3,412,032 deaths. The disease is now planet-wide but gatecrashing different regions of the world with different speeds and intensity. Initially thought of as a localized outbreak of a disease with mild flu-like symptoms, the prognosis of the pandemic that it would leave no corner of the world unscathed has come true. It has overwhelmed medical capacities, cost trillions of dollars in lost incomes, upended the lives of millions and pushed the major sectors of the economy into a deep freeze.

Amidst this maddening mayhem, as the novel coronavirus got busy in radically transforming the lives of people all over the globe, its terrible impact on education and students did not go under the radar. A large number of international organizations and agencies conducted studies and surveys to find out from the students as to how life looked like during the COVID-19 pandemic. This included both learning and teaching and how were they coping with the situation emotionally in different parts of the world.

As the governments over the world rushed to ensure lockdowns to enforce social distancing, the education systems got battered as schools, colleges and universities were forced shut and students asked to stay home.

According to a UNESCO report, the number of students required to stay at home due to the closure of their educational institutions at all grade levels reached a peak of 1.598 billion from 194 countries. This forced closure of schools affected their physical and mental well-being in profound ways with boredom, anxiety and frustration being the most common ailments.

According to UNICEF, in India, over 1.5 million schools closed down due to the pandemic, affecting 286 million children from pre-primary to secondary levels. Added to this are the 6 million girls and boys who were already out of school prior to Covid-19. This disruption in education has severe economic implications too. A World Bank report, Beaten or Broken: Informality and Covid-19 in South Asia, has quantified the impact of school closures in monetary terms-India is estimated to lose $440 billion (Rs 32.3 lakh crore) in possible future earnings.

As a result of this disruption, education largely moved online. The World Economic Forum reported a surge in the use of online learning software, virtual teaching, and language apps. India, too, witnessed an e-learning boom and classes on Zoom, WhatsApp and Skype became the norm for students, their parents and teachers.

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But online learning has had a very limited impact in India. The UNICEF reported that online education is not an option for all as only one in four children has access to digital devices and internet connectivity. Pre-COVID, only a quarter of households (24 per cent) in India had access to the internet and there is a large rural-urban and gender divide.

The situation was similar even in other developing regions of the world. An IMF study of Latin American countries indicated that due to the closure of schools for five months, more than 144 million children were learning through distant mode, which was clearly insufficient.

In the developed regions of the world, though the impact was equally disastrous medically, the students may not have been as strongly affected academically by the COVID-19 pandemic as elsewhere. In an online survey conducted across the world by the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, in which the University of Nevada, Reno was also a partner, it came to light that, during the pandemic, the students were provided with the most important support by the teaching staff and universities’ public relations offices. The students in Europe were more than satisfied with the roles of their institutions and the measures undertaken by them. 

In the U.S.A., the situation was slightly different. On 6 March 2020, the University of Washington in Seattle became the first major American college to close down the campus and was followed by around 250 colleges and universities, ten days later, to shut down operations. A large number of colleges adopted online or hybrid learning models. As neither the colleges nor the students were prepared for prolonged campus closure, both faced different challenges and record levels of depression and anxiety hit the students. A major problem for them was staying motivated to do well once the courses moved online. Low-income students who had no internet access fell into the ever-widening digital divide.

As the aforementioned survey reveals, the American students were very satisfied with their teachers’ responses in providing regular course assignments and responding to their questions in time. They were also quite content in sending presentations and written communications as part of the reorganized tutorials/seminars and practical classes. They were also confident about their computer skills i.e. using online teaching, sharing digital content and collaboration platforms, etc.

Just last week, Human Rights Watch released a report titled,” Years Don’t Wait for Them”: Increased Inequalities in Children’s Right to Education Due to The Covid-19 Pandemic.” It was prepared after people were interviewed in 60 countries spread across Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, South America and Australia. It documents as to how during lockdowns and the resultant school closures, education either moved online or was delivered remotely. Different education models experienced vast variations in success and quality and affected children unequally as the opportunities, tools, or access to online education were not the same for all. Several governments lacked the policies, resources, or infrastructure for online learning, to ensure equal participation of all children.

What Is To Be Done?    

As we hold onto human connectedness in a dark and isolating time, we should not lose sight of our children. The COVID-19 crisis has presented a reality check to us.

The implications of school closures are manifold and not just about education. If an unprecedented disaster is to be averted, different bodies, be they government, non-government or private, have to pitch into the short-term and long-term future of the children in this digital divide. Policymakers on all levels should invest in digital literacy and infrastructure, while educational institutions should provide flexible delivery methods, digital platforms and modernized user-friendly curricula to both students and teachers.

At different times and different fora, the United Nations, as a responsible international institution, in order to avoid digital, social, economic and gender inequalities, has stressed on the importance of the efficient delivery of educational programs. The present pandemic has further corroborated these concerns.

Along with this, as Human Rights Watch said, the governments also must keep their date with the commitments, made in 2015 through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, to guarantee all children are provided with an inclusive quality primary and secondary education by 2030.

So ultimately it becomes clearer that onus lies on the governments of respective nations to stand up to the occasion and mitigate the grim impact of the pandemic on their education systems.

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