Shadow Pandemic: A Case of Telangana's Battle for Uninterrupted Education
The pandemic chiefly affected the education sector, but achieving and imparting effective education remained broken. Education disruption is the ‘shadow pandemic’ that created a health crisis, mounting learning gaps and lagging policy, and falling behind with global aristocrats.
Pandemic has been a dreadful study in inequality, so it seems inescapable that the world’s poorer countries would bear the highest costs as kids also disappeared from classrooms.
It’s an uncommon bright spot in what was a lost year for children around the world. As the worldwide pandemic shut down the schools in more than 190 countries, children moved out from classrooms in Ghana, Uganda, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
When India surpassed its first lockdown, 2,10,000 students of the Indian state of Telangana faced a staggering local version problem. The students attended high-quality boarding schools run by the state for underprivileged children. Many came from remote villages across the state. All came from Dalit, scheduled-caste or severely poor communities., these children, aged ten and above, became part of the national migration home. Their parents arrived, packed their things, and back home on buses or auto rickshaws. These children were first in their families to be educated, which could potentially end their education.
Dr. R.S. Praveen Kumar, a police officer from Hyderabad, Telangana’s capital city, resolutely changed this condition. He was a trained veterinarian and had a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University; he headed both Telangana's Residential Educational Institutions societies and the government bodies that run the schools.
He formed a team and planned to devise an alternate plan. The novel didn't just focus on helping the children to continue to be students but on turning many of them into teachers. His group set up village learning circles, where students, supported by their teachers and local leaders, would instruct their peers and other children back home. “It’s based on the assumption that teaching is the best way of learning,” stated Kumar.
During the pandemic’s first wave, there were 27,000 student teachers, each leading a village learning circle, teaching 120,000 of their schoolmates and thousands of other kids. Children who almost lost their chance at education instead brought more children into learning.
In a discussion in Hyderabad, Shantha Sinha, an academic, activist, and former chair of the Indian government's National Commission for Protection of Child Rights stated the project was a great success, "sparking a silent revolution for first-generation learners" in India.
Praveen Kumar and his colleagues fastened the work immediately as the shutdown began 15 months ago. “It was all done in unimaginable speed, locking down the country. And the knee-jerk reaction we had was to use social media,” Kumar says.
They started sending worksheets via WhatsApp on parents’ phones. But many lacked reliable connectivity and realized they would lose kids. Kumar generated an idea of converting older students into teachers. The village schools were shut, too, another education catastrophe. Teaching those kids, he thought, would engage his students while helping the wider society.
It all began, in fields and under sprawling village trees, temples and churches closed for worship, and sometimes in backyards, teenagers with neatly pulled-back hair and wearing colorful dresses or salwar kameez gathered with their small groups no more than 15 kids began to teach reading and math, conducted simple experiments on air pressure, and discuss concepts such as globalization. The mode of instruction was English.
Their teachers guided the newly minted teachers; they would text recorded video lessons to the school first, feedback, then share them with their students. Videos were archived online as shared resources, and the top student lectures are paid as part of an “Earn While You Learn” incentive program.
The student teachers aren't teachers. Kumar has bestowed an altered title on them: commander. There are 27,000 commanders across Telangana state. “I am basically a cop,” he laughs. But there’s a thought behind the terminology. “Young children, they get a kick, you know. Poor people are deprived of that power. They are disempowered people, so probably any label that gives them a sense of power not to abuse it, but, yes, a sense of agency.”
P. Deeksha Singh, 6th class, Telangana Tribal Welfare Residential Fine Arts School, Jangammet, Hyderabad, Telangana. Deeksha Singh conducted a course for students of Village Learning Circle (VLC), Kharmanghat, Hyderabad, in August 2020, following the complete closure of schools due to the surge in Covid 19 cases in Telangana. She took a class on superstitions and astrology.
Kumar’s interest in the Dalit cause has been genuinely personal. He, himself, is a product of one of those boarding schools. "My mother was a bonded labourer, who was rescued by teachers," he explains. "She retired as a headmistress. I thought, my mother's story should resonate in every household in this country. That's one of the reasons I came back to this system." For nine years, he has been seconded to the school's file, something permitted by force. "We believe every police officer is a citizen in uniform," he says, "and every citizen is a police officer without a uniform."
Kumar's primary intention was, educating children without any gaps in learning. The student commanders were more confident, more communicative. And the circles attracted children who might never otherwise have seen school gates. When the village learning circles closed to learning in person amid a devastating second wave in India, many classes and conversations moved online.
In Taiwan and Japan, in Australia and New Zealand, schools reserved their usual structure, closing due to outbreaks. Vietnam contained the pandemic early and kept schools open for all but around 14 weeks.
Attendance, a vital predictor of performance. A lack of interest outside schools matches the cultural resistance. Many experts, including children, believe fully online learning isn't anywhere near as effective or engaging. Lower-income students fare worse in virtual education, which raises developmental concerns over younger minds.
It will take more significant planning, focus, resourcefulness to bring kids back and equip teachers to teach them effectively. Many reported to classrooms without robust safety measures. Some have taught students in person and on screens simultaneously with no preparation time. Many have had to learn entirely new teaching methods in front of an audience while managing their kids. Lack of planning will affect everyone in the classroom.
The pandemic academic year wasn’t without unexpected silver linings. Children learned resilience and autonomy.
The extracurricular activities were missed by kids, which meant more free play and sometimes overscheduling. The switch to remote learning led to later school start times and more sleep for teens, which stipulated better academic performance and health.
Children spent a lot more blissful time with their families, induced stronger bonds. There is evidence of a spike in family language achievement as kids from immigrant backgrounds spent more time with families; their interests, fluency, heritage, and languages grew.
Stuck in this intertwining of competing interests are the young minds of the nation. School closures meant the end of sports, extracurricular clubs, and classmates.
In the frontline, teachers across the country did fantastic work, packing boxes of books for students, preparing sticky animated lessons during periods of virtual schooling. Which helped families without tech access or those who preferred paper could pick up learning packages and continue to learn.
There has been a setback in social and emotional learning and mental health. Many faced grief, financial strain, isolation. However, underserved children may be set back most severely; majorly all are affected. But towards a beautiful end makes us bring little smiles on the growing buds of the nation to having them focus on their uninterrupted studies.
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