The nationwide lockdown has forced educational institutions to remain closed. This has triggered anxiety and curiosity among parents, students, teachers, school authorities, and educationists. In view of this, a webinar was organised on the 5th June 2020, to discuss issues related to reopening of schools in Odisha, India. Relevant topics such as precautions at school, mode of instruction delivery, learning and assessments, etc. were discussed by well-known education practitioners and experts of India. This discussion led to explore possible strategies to reopen school education in Odisha in post-lockdown.

  • Richa Agnihotri, Principal, The Sanskriti School, New Delhi
  • Aurobindo Behera, Former Additional Chief Secretary, Government of Odisha
  • Ritika Chopra, Senior Assistant Editor, Education, The Indian Express
  • Binod Khadria, Former Professor of Economics and Education, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
  • Pranati Panda, National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi
  • Mr. Anil Pradhan, Convenor, Right to Education Forum, Odisha
  • A decentralised system and a comprehensive consultative process must be adopted to reopen schools
  • Daily practices must include social distancing, wearing masks and hand hygiene
  • Online teaching should be made interesting with examples from everyday life
  • Teaching must be redesigned with skill-based and project-based learning suitable to the learner
  • Should include blended learning as the way forward and the curriculum must include components related to self-study and outside study materials
  • A committee must be formed by Government of Odisha focused on school reopening and related issues. 
  • Schools must address issues of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment
  • Learning must be collaborative where students and teachers are co-learners
  • Younger children must be provided higher and deeper hand-holding support
  • Supporting and building high-quality teachers must be a priority
  • Building a safety culture in school is important – physical, health and psycho-social safety
  • Schools must prioritise individual learning needs and prepare children for life beyond schools.
  • Children at the bottom of the pyramid to be provided more support 
  • Gender issues need prioritisation
  • Digital divide needs to be addressed, and quality of resources available needs to be upgraded.

The Context

Covid-19 has indeed affected the school level teaching-learning process. As in practice, the academic session ends during March in Odisha. New admissions, evaluations, and promotions etc. are carried out during April, followed by the summer vacations. Schools in Odisha usually resumes in the third week of June. However, the spread of Covid-19 has made it impossible to reopen schools. Government of Odisha (GoO) has announced that school will open on the 31st July 2020. This decision, however, lacks consultation from experts which indicates lesser transparency in this decision making. First note that10,000 schools in the state have been converted to Temporary Medical Centres (TMCs). Therefore, using these schools for teaching-learning purposes will take time. The Ashram schools (schools for children belonging to Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes) also face similar uncertainties.  As a result, GoO plans to begin online teaching in three coastal districts. However, these online courses lack evaluation from a third-party. NCERT has released a condensed curriculum along with APP-based solutions. The Government of India has also suggested using TV and Radio for teaching-learning purpose. These technological solutions for teaching do not account for the socioeconomic conditions and gaps in technology availability and adoption at household and community levels.

The 75th round of NSSO data suggests only 24% of households (42% urban and 15% rural) have internet access in India. This does not account for the quality of internet service which makes it difficult to judge the effectiveness of online instruction. The online teaching also assumes parents/students to be well equipped with handling the technical operations. This assumption is not in line with the literacy rate, as the NSSO data also indicates that 26% of the population above 15 years of age are not literate, and only 19% have attended formal education till the primary level.Further, only 6.4% of households in Odisha have a computer and internet; from which 8.5% could use them while 11% have expertise in using them. In addition to the above statistics, roughly 20% of villages do not have internet connectivity. The issue will be more complicated for the children of migrant labourers, as there are no clear guidelines on how to add them in schools in Odisha. The other important issue is less than 8% of schools have a computer facility, and more than 2,000 schools operate with a single teacher. Hence, the effectiveness of online teaching is open to question.

Non-pedagogical Challenges Facing Schools:

A pandemic like any other catastrophic event, brings the constraints faced by schools into sharp focus and these can affect their daily operations severely. For instance, since a significant number of schools are without toilets and water facilities, it would be difficult to implement Government guidelines on disinfecting learning materials and classrooms. A covid-19 positive case in school might cause panic suggesting the need to explore alternatives like blended learning, Schools with single teachers will face difficulties under such conditions. Also, the challenging modification in teaching might add pressure to female teachers who are often implicitly assigned the role of caregivers in many situations. Instead of understanding the learning gaps, the Government is trying to adapt to the loss of school days by mulling the rationalisation of the syllabus. Government is concerned more about the class 10th and 12th compared to the younger class as the board examinations need to be conducted smoothly. Yet there is a significant body of research showing the early childhood education is the key to better educational outcomes.  Another challenge that is not well addressed is the issue of timing. Given or relatively poor knowledge of the epidemiology of Covid-19 and the political implications of this it is difficult to determine when and how to reopen schools. This has implication on just on creating learning gaps but also on the psychosocial state of the children.At the same time this uncertainty is providing the Government and policymakers’ an opportunity for exploring new ways of education, pedagogy and curriculum design. Therefore, we have to rise above literacy rate, rather focus on building skill sets that are employable in the 21st century with local flavour and culture.

Paradigm Change in Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessments

Covid-19 has given a big boost to digital delivery of instruction, but it is important to evaluate its effectiveness and sustainability. For instance, blended learning could be useful once issues of accessibility, training and assessment are addressed. We now have an opportunity to revisit three things: curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. This gives a chance to standardise curriculum at the national level with the local context. Due to the digitation of education, we can also globalise teaching and learning and examine more diverse and inclusive options. Also, the addition of art and crafts and a visit to museums and galleries with social distancing can increase the understanding of the student. Similarly, the assessment mechanism also will emphasize open-book and project-based assignments which will foster more critical thinking instead of rote learning. Thus, the focus needs to be on developing independent individuals who take care of their learning and get prepared for life outside an educational institution. However, a school as a system and institution is still necessary and an online education system cannot overtake the existing system of teaching and learning. This is particularly important for creating cohorts, providing peers and peer learning and providing a level of intimacy and involvement that is vital for young learners. However, the new form of school post-pandemic will see a large change and up-gradation in technology and learning capabilities. It would make sense to go for the staggered reopening of schools with younger children coming first because they would need much more attention. We will need to make learners more agile and resilient and go for diligent self-assessment. While the older children will make up on their own, the younger children will need help as they wouldn’t be as accomplished as older children to handle learning how to overcome deficits.

Complicated Regulations

There are complications in terms of regulations. Non-government organisations in general are not very good at dealing with regulations because they do not have a battery of lawyers or chartered accountants. This is in addition to the regulatory changes that are already challenging the sector. Hence, they are already stretched and this will bring more complexity to the sector.

The biggest worry of the civil society is this scheme comes at a political juncture when anybody who’s trying to hold the power to account — a fundamental role of these organizations — is facing government regulations and the resources that are coming in for them are monitored.

Could it be that the idea of a Social Stock Exchange might end up becoming yet another instrument in the hands of the powers that be to stifle the voice of civil society groups, who try to raise the voice of the marginalized?

What can Odisha learn from Other Countries and Developments in India?

Nearly 20-22 countries in Europe have reopened schools during this period. Given the employment structure of these economies, the opening of school is considered as a first step to inreopening the economy. Countries such as Norway, Denmark, Poland and France have brought their youngest to the school first. Germany has brought back their oldest first. Italy and Spain have announced that they would reopen only during September 2020. These steps are taken under the assumption that children are not very susceptible to the pandemic.Post Covid-19 schooling would be different. For instance, schools in some of the European countries do not allow parents inside school boundaries. Strict hand hygiene routine for children, outdoor class, and physical distance between desks of one metre are the new norms in school. While face masks are optional for older children, it is prohibited for younger children in France. However, for teachers and staffs face covers are mandatory.Denmark was the first country to reopen schools on 15 April. Some initiatives to learn from Denmark are demarcated zones for a playground; groups of 4-5 are allowed to play; sharing toys, food, handshakes and high-fives are not permitted in schools. Meeting friends from other classes are prohibited in schools while toilets are sanitised twice a day. Most importantly, all frequently touched places are disinfected twice a day.The international experiences also include South Korea and Israel those shutdown schools in specific areas; however, a blanket shutdown was not permitted in these economics.

From the Indian point of view, it was discussed that schools are planning to reopen gradually after 15 July 2020. The strategies include bringing older students first to school, maintaining social distancing, allowing ten students in a classroom of size 500 sq. feet, staggered entry and exit system, increasing sanitation facilities; mandatory face mask; check-up of body temperature and arrangement of better ventilation facilities in schools. At the same time, the other strategies include restriction of gatherings, cultural programmes, parent-teacher meetings and annual days etc. As only 30-50% of the school strength will be called on a day, the large enrolment school may have to operate in twice shifts. Learning time of school is also limited to 100 days and 600 hours. Further, classes 1 to 5 may attend schools only twice a week, 6 to 8 may attend 2-4 times a week, and 9 to 12 may attend 4-5 times a week

How the Contexts are Different in India and Odisha?

With 1.53 million schools and students, India’s position is unique in administering with the impact of Covid-19 on the education system. Nine million teachers and 252 million children were in lockdown due to this pandemic, where both the learning process and student nutrition have negatively affected in India asmid-day meal is non-operational due to the lockdown.

However, programmes such as NISTHA, DIKSHA, Sailasiddhi would help to manage the education system in post-Covid-19 situations. Reproduction of content is one issue that schools have to address, but if teachers can be effective and innovative, they can introduce better online teaching materials. The lessons from developed economies may not be relevant for Odisha due to several constraints at the state level. School reopening must include mapping the disease spread phase-wise manner with support from the politicians. Given the social distancing norm and large class size with fewer teachers, it would be difficult for the government and schools to manage to teach. Other significant changes at school level include safety culture emphasising physical, health and psychological safety.

What should be Odisha’s Focus?

In Odisha’s context, there exists inequality among rural-urban schools, Government-private schools, and poor-privileged students in the education system. The State government should consider forming a committee of school administrators and experts to decide when and how to reopen the schools and also how to reduce the inequality among different types of children, e.g. better off and worse off, digitally enabled and digitally challenged, etc. This committee should consider all options related to curriculum, pedagogy and assessments. Further, a decentralised approach needs to be followed, keeping local situations in view. On the issue of economic hardship faced by the parents, the problem is quite heterogeneous and depends on the perception of parents on education and the selection of school. Time management would be a crucial factor in the new scenario. This would worsen the condition of the poor students as they also help their families with economic activities. Existing social policies on education sectors need to be revisited as most of the parents may not take the risk in engaging their kids with the mid-day meal scheme.

Some concrete suggestions for Odisha are (1) development of a framework and guideline on Covid-19 and school education; (2) strategic planning for implementation of the roadmap so devised looking at a decentralised model in the context of Odisha by bringing about granularity to the District level; (3) Teacher management needs to be put at top priority by looking at teacher motivation; their service conditions; their psycho-social well-being; addressing gender as well as socio-economic disparities.

Other Pertinent Issues and Questions

The road to reopening of schools in Odisha is not straightforward due to the varied nature of the schools, students and teachers. The substitution effect of not attending school against staying home and helping families would be difficult to manage. This adverse substitution effect has direct implications for the girl child who might end up with a greater share of housework. If children don’t attend school, it might reduce social skills and social networking and also exacerbate the gender gap in education. Most importantly, the role of a teacher is vital compared to the infrastructure facility of the school. Also, connecting each school with a doctor would increase awareness among the stakeholders of the school.

Summing up, we must have an excellent school system if we aspire to have a great economy. Human capital is the driver of growth, and a well-functioning education system can build great individuals who will help the economy to grow. Therefore, reopening and utilizing the opportunity for rebuilding the school system in Odisha by taking into account of all stakeholders must be the priority.