The COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread global disruption. But thankfully, the virtual world has been extremely welcoming. Several schools and colleges have started conducting online classes through virtual platforms. Online education has become an alternative to classroom education for all stages of education, primary to university level. However, it hasn’t been a smooth flow for everyone.
Because of the lockdown, the deep-seated social and class differences in the country have aggravated, especially between the public and private school systems. In India, only 4.6% of the GDP is spent on education. This is even lower than what the sub-Saharan countries like Togo, Kenya, and Zimbabwe spend on education. Also, the mid-day meals have been a key force driving school enrollment in rural areas. So, the lockdown has impacted not only the education but food availability for several students. Even if the school is able to set up a digital platform, the students don’t have digital and remote learning facilities at their homes. This means that for millions of students in rural areas, education has been brought to a complete halt because of lockdown.
The first challenge that rural India’s education system is facing is the risk of increased dropouts. Since midday meals are one of the key reasons why several Indian rural students attend school, there is a chance that the dropout rate of the country will increase if the lockdown continues longer. India’s dropout rate is already among the highest in the world. On the other hand, students attending private schools in the urban area are using standard digital platforms for continuing their education. Even though e-learning is still a new mode of learning at private schools, teachers and students of these institutions have the means to use technologies like email and video conferencing.
The second challenge faced by rural India’s education system is that teachers are struggling to find ways for continuing teaching their students in a situation where there is no physical contact. This challenge is different for teachers from urban and rural areas. Teachers from premier private schools know how to work with technology and have the necessary infrastructure like strong internet connectivity at their homes. So, they are able to create and share their course material. Some of them have even experimented with online learning experiences before.
However, this is not the case for the majority of teachers in rural areas. First of all, there aren’t enough primary school teachers, to begin with. In fact, there is a shortage of teachers in rural areas. Second, most of the schools appoint ad hoc teachers, instead of permanent ones.
So, if the students were not able to receive proper education when the schools were open, it is impossible for them to continue their education during the lockdown.
The third challenge that the education system in rural India faces is family problems. The main reason behind the dropouts in India is poverty. Children leave schools for helping their parents at the shop or on the farm. So, parents reluctantly support them going to schools. As of now, it is not clear how parents in rural areas are reacting to the lockdown situation. Many of them are unemployed now and are in debt or running out of their savings. This means that when the lockdown lifts, some parents might force their kids to help support the family and drop out of schools.
The fourth challenge is the cash crunch. Most of the schools in rural areas will have a big cash flow crunch. Many schools and daycare centres operate on the basis of a monthly fee structure. As the lockdown continues, these payments are drying. However, expenses like salaries, rent, and others are staying the same. There are many institutions that generate minimal profits or are run as a non-profit. This means that they don’t have the cash reserves for dealing with an extended period of lockdown. Over the course of lockdown, some small schools might permanently shut down. School owners will have to renegotiate rentals and downsize.
Now, the Indian government has done its job right by enforcing the lockdown. However, it has not said anything about its education sector strategy, especially for the rural areas. So far, all that has been done is a directive that prevents schools from increasing fees during the lockdown. The government is taking its time for deliberating a strategy. This will help them get a clear idea of what they could do to help the school and education system in rural India.