As hard-hitting as the worldwide lockdowns to deal with Covid-19 have been on everyone, there are some sections of society whom they have hit harder than others. Even financially stable and socially secure people have been devastated over the last year and a half, so is it any wonder that the more vulnerable among us have suffered more than ever before?
There have been enough discussions on how being forced to work from home and the discontinuation of social gatherings have hurt the financial, physical, and mental health of the adult workforce. Unfortunately, not too many people discuss the long-term, damaging effects of this confinement on school- and college-going students of all ages. Research bodies from around the world have begun documenting the very real and very severe loss of learning and development of students at all levels of education, right from toddlers in kindergarten to adults in postgraduate programs. One such study, conducted by a team of Indian academicians, was published in the journal collection of the US National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine. It details the difficulties faced by students, especially from marginalised backgrounds, in acquiring the resources necessary for participating in the e-learning system. Across the board, these difficulties led to a measurable increase in students’ levels of anxiety, stress, and depression.
The unfortunate truth about online classes is that although they’re currently the only apparent learning solution, they are not an inclusive system and depend on every student having certain resources that can only come with a particular amount of wealth: a laptop/tablet and a stable, strong internet connection. Therefore, this system causes its own set of problems for learners from economically underprivileged backgrounds. When the learning itself is not accessible to them because of the absence of a dedicated device and stable WiFi in their homes, how can they be expected to grow and develop?
To make matters worse, the pandemic-based financial difficulties that all sections of the economy have been facing are ensuring that there are simply no funds left over to sponsor additional support services that are crucial to the overall development of students, especially those with either financial or performance-based disadvantages. Rehabilitation programs, therapeutic activities, and engaging extracurriculars have all been severely impacted by the lockdown.
The interaction that students have with their peers and teachers in a physical school setting is so crucial for their cognitive and emotional development. As a result of being cooped up at home, children with special needs have lost out on much-needed sensory therapy that makes adjustment even more difficult for them. There are too many unfortunate reports about mentally disadvantaged children developing erratic behavior and becoming increasingly upset at being denied the interpersonal contact they so desperately need.
I have the fondest memories of mentoring teams of underprivileged children to play basketball under the ASSIST program I had founded in high school. Playing a team sport has the double advantage of developing life skills and lessons in players, along with giving them the thrill and satisfaction of excelling at a game and having access to opportunities which their background would otherwise restrict for them. It is saddening to think that such activities can no longer be carried out while we battle this pandemic.
It was a matter of some relief to learn that the government at least eased the process of the end-of-year assessments, relaxing the otherwise very stringent criteria of the final and board exams which allow students to progress to the next grade. In recognition of the difficult and erratic nature of the teaching and learning process all year long, the government of India in tandem with national and international educational organizations allowed students following different boards relaxed or alternative assessments, in some cases forgoing final exams entirely where elementary school students were concerned. It went a long way in easing tensions among students and parents all over the country.
However, we remain trapped in a storm of thought-provoking questions: for how long will the global academic community have to suffer this learning loss? What are the long-term repercussions of this invisible yet equally damaging consequence of the worldwide lockdowns? It seems that only time will provide us with answers.