COVID TIMES: A COMPROMISE WITH THE RIGHT TO EDUCATION
Dipendu Das and Debarati Pal, 1st Year, National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi
As we approach the end of the COVID-19 era, the definition of “normal” life has changed dramatically. As the world proved to get a semblance of the situation, students from all over the world faced challenges of coping with academics. The education system is facing a heavy crisis. In addition to the impact on short-term learning outcomes, the prolonged closure of schools has resulted in a loss of human capital and a reduction in long-term economic opportunities.
Education is not a privilege, but a human right. The right to education is legally guaranteed in India for children in the age group of 6 to 14 years without discrimination under Article 21A of the Constitution.
“The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the State may, by law, determine.”
It has been clearly stated that education provided by the government will have two features- “free” and “compulsory”. This implies that all educational expenses of a child are to be incurred by the Government, be it the expenses of the digital equipment required for online education or be it the expenses of transportation.
What is shocking in India is that despite the implementation of the Right to Education Act, COVID-19 has affected some 290 million children and 6 million of whom are no longer in school. According to a recent survey by Oxfam, up to 80% of Indian students are unable to access online education during the lockdown, and many may not return to class when they reopen physically.
These statistics threaten to increase because their families are economically insecure due to the pandemic, leaving them out of school. With their families struggling and economically stricken, their future seems bleak. In this article, we will focus particularly on analysing the reasons behind such shocking statistics, the negligence of the Right to Education Act in the era of the pandemic, and ways in which we can picture a brighter future and strive to bring back children to their learning centres after the pandemic.
THE UNDERLYING REASONS
No Phones/ Digital Divide
India has the second largest school system in the world, behind China. Closing schools to maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 crisis provided the most logical solution to preventing transmission in the community. However, this extended closure has a disproportionately negative impact on the students. In addition to widening the gap in educational inequality, the pandemic has exacerbated existing disparities. Traditional physical learning has completely switched to online, affecting the education of children. This has been especially out of reach for students living in rural villages in India with no access to gadgets, poor internet speed, and connectivity.
India is a lower-middle-income country and children in all countries in this category have a very low rate of gadget and Internet access. Only 15% of those under the age of 25, 19% of those aged 15 to 24, and 14% of those aged 3 to 17 have access to devices and the internet in the country. According to the 2018 Broadcast India Survey, 1.3 billion people in India own only 300 million smartphones. In addition, states cannot take for granted that parents will provide their children with the technology to access educational resources on the Internet. For parents making minimum wage, it has always been difficult to send children, particularly girls, to school. The extra burden of providing a smartphone or a device with internet access may push children to the brink and result in the withdrawal from the public school system. This suggests that while students from more affluent families can easily make the transition to distance learning whereas students from disadvantaged backgrounds may succumb to ineffectiveness due to the inaccessibility of technology. This discriminatory ratio and the inaccessibility of gadgets against the rest is evident enough to show the digital divide and its impact on school children in India.
No incentives, No mid-day meals, No Inspiration
Very few states such as West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh have cared to provide food materials to the families of students from government schools in place of the mid-day meals that students would previously enjoy. Besides this, there has been no incentive provided to the students to rejoin school. In a situation where there is absolutely no inspiration and it is difficult to make ends meet, an environment conducive to learning has been hampered.
Following the outbreak of the pandemic, millions of people lost their jobs in industries, small businesses, and unorganized sectors. Without a stable income where poor families cannot even afford food or medical care, it is practically impossible for them to send their children to school. Before the pandemic, only male members were engaged in working and earning for the families, but unemployment and lockdown have completely changed the scenario. Even female members and children are working to meet the daily needs of the family. As classrooms have been closed and parents have lost their jobs during the pandemic, thousands of families are putting their children to work for survival, undoing decades of progress in reducing child labour and threatening the future of a generation of Indian children. In rural India, a national lockdown imposed in March pushed millions of people into poverty, encouraging children from villages to cities for cheap labour. It is likely that under these circumstances, children are forced to work to feed the needs. Where lives are challenged daily and it is hard to feed the hungry stomach, there is room or hope for education and schooling.
The government supports India as a global leader through quality education and this is evident from the newly drafted National Education Policy (NEP) but online education is the new "normal" and the policy needs to go further and examine the feasibility of digitization to ensure fair, equality and quality education. NEP fails to explain online learning platforms with the different dialects, contexts, and lived experiences that are brought together in the classroom. It does not mention schemes through which such platforms would impart fair education and bring the entire student crowd on such platforms.
THE INSECURE FUTURE
The present education system, if continued as the new normal and without taking any steps to promote equality and methods of bringing the entire student population on the online mode, would lead to a heavily industrial world where the present well-off families who are capable of providing their children with various types of equipment to receive online education will produce the future managers and innovative thinkers of the industrialist world. On the other hand, the downtrodden families struggling to help their kids receive an education will produce future labour or cheap and voluminous manpower. Therefore, this leads us to a world of a sharp divide in our professional lives too where elitism would be promoted as a direct result of the pandemic.
ENVISIONING THE WAY AHEAD
It is high time that the responsible policy makers should start devising ways in which students could be enrolled back in school. The first methodology that the author feels could work wonders in achieving this goal is to provide ration (even if the quantity would be enough for one member) to the families of children enrolled in government schools now. This could considerably decrease the number of dropouts. All state governments might also consider providing funds for buying minimalist smartphones for children like the West Bengal government since digital education is something that seems like the future and not just a phenomenon of the COVID period. Coachella of California had started providing students tablets and internet access to students and it went a long way to benefit marginalized students and pushed up the graduation rate of students by 10%. The focus should be shifted to the practical application of theories written in books regarding the style of education. This is important because there is no other way that it can be ensured that children diligently learn their courses besides making up for the backlogs of the last year. Since the NEP had come up with a light of hope in the field of practical knowledge above theoretical, it would be best to schedule the implementation of NEP very soon and remove the ambiguity regarding the start of its implementation.
Further, schools should be reopened immediately in three shifts of a short time span each in order to ensure the minimum spread of COVID. Meeting friends is surely something that will help children’s voice out their problems, give each other support, and feel motivated to study in a group. Group tasks, informal and inspirational discussions would go a long way in promoting a feeling of collectivism and unity in facing problems together, be it financial or emotional, at a time when there exists an air of depression.
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(Disclaimer- The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of Child Rights Centre.)