Sunday, April 21, 2024

A generation at stake

Even as school campuses across the country are gradually losing their masks and gaining their students, an insidious mark of the COVID-19 pandemic still remains. The re-acquaintance of students with traditional mode of classroom teaching has also meant the arrival of a majority of children who lost their essential period of formative education to non-existent/inefficient online teaching mode for a sustained period of time. One thing is very clear: Learning loss from the (ongoing) COVID-19 is a national catastrophe whose effects will be with us for decades. Because gaps in education compound over time; unprepared/under-prepared students in the lower classes ultimately mean worse-prepared students in higher sections. Quite tragically, these effects weren’t felt equally. Studies have shown that students from low-income families and those with migrant parents-already at a structural disadvantage-suffered the worst educational loss during the pandemic period that prevented kids from attending schools in person. As António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, reminded us: “Education is the key to personal development and the future of societies. It unlocks opportunities and narrows inequalities. It is the bedrock of informed, tolerant societies, and a primary driver of sustainable development. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the largest disruption of education ever”. The pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns spread over two years have also resulted in at least one positive thing: A much greater appreciation for the importance of schools. As parents struggled to work with their children at home due to school closures, public recognition of the essential caretaking role schools play in society has been amplified to a large degree. As young people struggled to learn from home, parents’ gratitude for teachers, their skills, and their invaluable role in student well-being, has risen. The pandemic caused abrupt and profound changes around the world. This was the worst shock to education systems in decades, with the longest school closures combined with looming recession. It has set back progress made on global development goals, particularly those focused on education. The economic crises within countries and globally have led to fiscal austerity, increases in poverty, and fewer resources available for investments in public services from both domestic expenditure and development aid. All of this will lead to a crisis in human development that continues long after disease transmission has ended. Disruptions to education systems as a result of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have already driven substantial losses and inequalities in learning. All the efforts to provide remote instruction were laudable, but they were very poor substitutes for in-person learning. That much is clear. Globally, school closures and the resulting disruptions to school participation and learning are projected to amount to losses valued at $10 trillion in terms of affected children’s future earnings. Schools also play a critical role around the world in ensuring the delivery of essential health services and nutritious meals, protection, and psycho-social support. Thus, school closures have also imperilled children’s overall wellbeing and development, not just their learning. It is hard to imagine there will be another moment in history when the central role of education in the economic, social, and political prosperity and stability of nations is so obvious and well understood by the general population. Now that the schools have reopened and the period from 2022 has seen no disruptions in physical schooling, calls have been made to the policymakers chart a vision for how education can emerge stronger from this global crisis than ever before and propose a path for capitalising on education’s newfound support in virtually every community across the globe. As welcomed as the development has been, it is not enough for schools to simply reopen their doors after COVID-19. Students are going to need tailored and sustained support to help them readjust and catch-up with what they have lost during the off-school teaching period of the pandemic. Schools also must be prepared to provide that support and meet the enormous challenges ahead. It calls for new policies changes from the Government to enable all children to return to school and to a supportive learning environment, which also addresses their health and psychosocial well-being and other needs. The time to act is now; the future of an entire generation is at stake.