The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically disrupted education and learning systems across the globe. Through technology-based distance learning solutions, for the privileged, this disruption stimulated innovation in a sector that has been dormant for several years. For the underprivileged? Not so much. Mridula Dalvi explains the likelihood of an increase in dropout rates of disadvantaged students, particularly girls, and highlights tangible solutions to correct the imbalance.

The fundamental right of education is vested in every person. In the past few decades, there has been significant progress in ensuring accessible education, especially to girls. A recent UNICEF report pointed out that the number of out-of-school girls worldwide dropped by 79 million between 1998 and 2018. However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has reversed some of these gains.

Since the pandemic is still ongoing, its full impact remains to be seen. As per a new World Bank report, by the time students start returning to school, there could be a loss of 10 trillion dollars in earnings for the global economy. Close to 7 million students from primary and secondary education are estimated to drop out of school due to the pandemic's income shock. This also adds to the risk of countries going off-track from achieving their Learning Poverty goals if no remedial action is taken.

The Indian Perspective

Experts have predicted a 20% increase in girl school dropout rates in the country due to the pandemic. These dropouts could be attributed to:

  1. Increased Economic Backlash

Due to the lockdown, there has been a massive drop in incomes and earning capacity in many households. The increase in the opportunity cost of sending children to school could lead to several children, especially girls, being forced to drop out of school to look for paid work.

2.  Patriarchal Structures

The patriarchal structures in Indian households have increased the burden of household chores and sibling care on girls since school closures. This, in turn, increases the possibility of girls missing out on online classes as well.

The probability of girls being forced to get married early has also increased. Professor Amrita Rampal, an educationist at Delhi University, states, “It is estimated that about 20 percent of girls are not going to come back to school after lockdown….most of the girls from families of migrant workers are in the vulnerable age where they are likely to get married.”

In fact, in the aftermath of the Ebola virus spread in Western Africa, it was noticed that once schools reopened, many girls dropped out due to the burden of household chores. Forced marriages and teen pregnancy rates also increased. These experiences of the Ebola epidemic serve as cautionary tales about what India could expect in the near future.

3. Lack of Access to the Internet

The pandemic has shifted learning online, with classes and assignments conducted through internet platforms. However, marginalized communities often lack proper access or means to the internet. This problem is worse for women, with only 16%  with any internet access as compared to 36% males.

Possible Measures to Mitigate the Backlash

However, with timely intervention, it will be possible to cushion the pandemic’s backlash on education. Some of the strategies that may be of help are discussed below:

  1. Keeping in Touch

One of the primary reasons for potential dropouts post-COVID is the alienation of students from the education system due to school closure. Thus, it is imperative for the stakeholders to try both novel and familiar ways to check in on the children regularly.

Pratyusha, a counselor at the Akanksha Foundation, shared a few helpful strategies being employed by the foundation to ensure that dropout rates remain low. Since the beginning of the lockdown, they started conducting ‘well-being’ calls, wherein teachers call every student they can reach once or twice every 15 days. These calls resolve issues related to physical (COVID and otherwise) and mental health, general well-being, access to ration etc. After each call, teachers fill in a form with details pertaining to that student. This has helped to collate data and assess situations where counselors/social workers might need to step in to ensure the child’s well-being.

Along with this, measures like home-delivered meals/dry ration to school and Anganwadi children, data packages for students, TV broadcasted classes, and regular SMS/IVR to parents for daily activities could help in ensuring that kids are kept in the loop and stay in the system.

2. Empowering Panchayats

Many issues are at the grassroots-level and can be dealt with through local solutions. Panchayat Samitis can step in to bring back children who dropped out back into school in each village. As suggested by an Oxfam report, Panchayat Samitis can be mobilized to map at-risk and vulnerable children (particularly migrant children) and connect them to relevant social protection schemes.

3. Mohalla Classes

The Oxfam report also suggests that gradual transitioning before the reopening of schools is essential. Mohalla (area) classes in areas with low infection rates can be started. Teachers can teach 4-5 students in each class for a few hours, reaching out to all students at least twice a week.

4. Reduction/ Waiver of Fees and Other Expenses

Since economic paucity is one of the major factors in keeping children from schools, waivers and rebates in school fees and tools (books, uniforms) could bring down the dropout numbers.

5. Extensive Data Mapping

Extensive data mapping to identify children who have dropped out of school is essential to keep the pandemic's ill-effects to a minimum. Panchayat Samitis and other organizations with the wherewithal to conduct such research must be roped in to ensure that maximum children can be reached out to and brought back to school. Ideally, such data mapping must take into account the gender dynamic of access to education in India.

In light of the issues discussed above, it has become clear that if remedial action is not taken immediately, India could be staring at a situation wherein hard-won gains made in the education sector could be lost, thereby adversely affecting millions of children, in particular young girls. We must urgently focus on developing research and deliberate on means to employ innovative methods for ensuring the retention of children in school. This can help schools tide through the pandemic.

Illustration by Rhythm Vijayvargiya

Edited by Kala Raju