Outside the locked and deserted Vidya Sagar Public School, the eight-year-old daughter of a snack vendor sits forlornly on her father’s disused pushcart.
Before coronavirus, Rachna Kashyap was one of 200 pupils whose working-class parents paid Rs400 ($5.40) in monthly tuition to send their children to the no-frills, English-medium private school instead of overcrowded and underperforming state schools.
But the school, which employed nine teachers, collapsed during India’s lockdown that cost millions of jobs. Parents could no longer afford the fees and the school lacked the wherewithal to transition to online learning.
For Rachna, her education ground to a halt. “I can’t study because my mom can’t pay,” she said.
Vidya Sagar, the founder of the school, is pessimistic about any imminent revival. “All of the teachers have left,” he said. “People are busy finding some means of livelihood to survive: parents, teachers — all of us. My business has been destroyed. The story of education for children like those at my school is over.”
The pandemic has exacted a heavy toll on India’s estimated 270m schoolchildren, who have not seen the inside of a classroom since March — and may not return this year at all.
For decades, India has struggled to entice children into school and teach basic skills, while poor families have embraced education as a ticket to greater prosperity. Many scraped together the fees for low-cost private schools.
Coronavirus has set back those efforts. Elite private schools and top government schools have made a smooth transition to virtual classrooms, though concerns about excessive screen time have curbed instruction.
But millions of less privileged children, including many first-generation pupils, have had their education severely disrupted. Neither their families nor their often rudimentary schools are equipped for remote learning.
The World Bank has warned of a surge in dropouts and significant learning losses, which will “will have a lifetime impact on the productivity of a generation of students”.
Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, said the disruption would weigh on India’s economic prospects for many years. “If there is a breakdown in education, you are seriously hobbling the future,” he said.
India will permit schools to reopen after October 15. But whether, when and how to resume classes will be decided by state governments. With coronavirus still circulating widely, many authorities are wary of restarting. Surveys suggest most parents are reluctant to send their children to school until a vaccine is available.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is touting a “culture” of online classes, and new education ministry guidelines state “online/distance learning shall be the preferred mode of teaching” even if schools partially reopen.
But experts warn that protracted school closures and continuing reliance on remote learning will exacerbate yawning educational disparities.
“If you are a first-generation learner, without access to technology and without educated parents, school is everything,” said Karthik Muralidharan, a professor at the University of California, San Diego. “If you have lost that, you have nothing. It’s almost inevitable that we are going to see an increase in inequality.”
Long-term school closures also put children at risk of losing skills they had already developed. “There is genuine learning loss from not being in school,” he added. “When I miss fifth grade, I also lose much of what I learnt in fourth grade. These could be long-lasting losses.”
India was among the least prepared of any big economy for virtual learning, Mr Chakravorti said. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, internet penetration was just 40 per cent at the end of last year.
In rural areas, where two-thirds of Indians live, just about a quarter of the population has internet access, often through just one device per family.
“The online stuff is only for the elite,” said Rukmini Banerji, chief executive of Pratham, an educational charity. “Online requires that you have a device and that you have connectivity, which is not an assumption that you can make, even in cities.”
Before the pandemic, nearly half of India’s schoolchildren studied in private schools, estimates Gaja Capital, a private equity firm that invests in education businesses.
Of those, about 80 per cent paid less than Rs40,000 a year in tuition. But like Vidya Sagar, many of these low-cost private schools have suspended operations, hit by the economic shock and mass exodus of migrants from cities.
An Oxfam India survey of 1,158 families in five states found that 80 per cent of government school students and 60 per cent of private school students received no instruction or educational support during lockdown.
Yamini Aiyar, president of New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research, said free government schools, which were already struggling to educate their students, would be inundated with new pupils when the virus threat recedes. “The school system,” she said, “is going to look very different.”
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