Students as collateral

Almost two years of staggered lockdown period compelled us to go for the less-explored opportunity of remote working and virtual classes. As the virus forced us indoors for months together, being confined to the four walls of our houses and sharing space with other household members to work and learn wasn’t pleasant to begin with. But like all things, with time, we gradually brought into the idea of remote working and learning. At the same time, the upending of our habitual pre-pandemic behaviour has had far-reaching effects on areas that are conveniently overlooked ~ for instance, the impact of virtual learning and its repercussions on students are only now emerging. Without a doubt, students have borne the brunt of the change in the way lessons were imparted. If exams are any reliable indicator of a student’s abilities, they have indeed shown a slide in their ability to achieve the requisite grades. In the aftermath of declaring this year’s HSLC exam results, the State’s School Education Department claimed that the overall decrease in pass percentage was due to pandemic-related issues as the 2022 batch suffered a considerable amount of learning loss when they were in Class 9 in 2020, and then in 2021. But it would be a mistake to focus only on Class 10 students and their sufferings. As the Department’s claim clearly illustrates that the losses suffered in lower classes contributed to the students’ poor performance in HSLC examination. This is a cause for worry because according to the National Achievement Survey of 2021 released in May this year by the Union Ministry of Education, only 22% Class 10 students in Nagaland had faced obstacles to learning in the pandemic. Again, only 21% of Class 10 students were without digital devices at home and 62% experienced worry, anxiety and fear in the pandemic. In contrast, the Survey showed that 99% of Class 8 students in the State had faced obstacles to learning in the pandemic. In this category of students, 52% had no digital device at home to facilitate their online education in the pandemic. Among Class 3 students in Nagaland, 37% encountered obstacles to learning in the pandemic and 39% were without digital devices at home. Similarly, 35% of Class 5 students faced obstacles to learning in the pandemic and were without digital devices at home. The figures themselves tell a story of caution and the School Education Department should perhaps brace itself for even more challenging years ahead. At the same time, this problem is not limited to Nagaland alone. According to a Child and Family Tracker Survey released by UNICEF this year, 50% of guardians worldwide reported a decline in the academic performance of their wards. Overwhelmingly, the finger pointed towards the frequent disruption to learning brought on by the lockdown. The switch from in-person classes to online classes has had a devastating effect on the cognitive growth of the students. But with the virus raging across the globe, there was no other credible substitute for online classes. In some quarters, arguments have been made for parents assisting the children during online classes, but one could not reasonably expect a parent to become an expert at teaching with the same level of skill and sophistication as a trained teacher. As illustrated by the National Achievement Survey, most students in Nagaland were without access to virtual learning devices. In any case, we do not need a national survey to tell us that. With schools closed entirely for over a year, students without access to virtual learning devices/platforms have fallen behind their counterparts. Despite this, no remedial measures had been taken to make up for the loss. And as already suggested, we are only beginning to witness the adverse after-effects of the lockdown on our children. In all this while, the question has never been about the pros and cons of online classes or in-person. It has always been about access to equal opportunity and its absence thereof.