Pranitha V, a pre-university student went back to her hometown in Nagaland from Bengaluru, in April after educational institutions closed due to the pandemic, but the 17-year-old may never return to college. Her father lost his job and she now needs to find a job. “I have to support my family. My Bengaluru college dreams are just that now—a dream,” said the first-generation learner.
The National Education Policy 2020 unveiled last month calls for an appropriate mechanism for “tracking students” who may have dropped out due to various circumstances. But educationists say tracking out-of-school children in India is a daunting task. The 2.5 lakh gram panchayats tasked with tracking dropouts under the Right to Education Act do not maintain any record of children who leave school and join the workforce, said V.P. Niranjanaradhya, fellow and programme head, universalisation of education, National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.
Unesco recently released a projection covering 180 countries, estimating that 24 million children may not return to education in 2020 due to the pandemic. The largest share of learners at risk of not returning to school are in south and west Asia. The 24 million children like Pranitha who may never return to education are in addition to the 258 million who were already out of school prior to the crisis in the pre-primary to university level.
The National Sample Survey Organisation’s 2017-18 household survey put the number of out-of-school children in India (6-17 years) at 3.22 crore. “This will double in a year’s time. With schools shut for nearly six months, we are already seeing children especially in rural areas helping their parents in MNREGA schemes. The longer the gap in learning, the more disinterested they get and eventually exit the education system. It’s dangerous,” said Niranjanaradhya.
Advocating for immediate opening of schools in small habitations, Niranjanardhya said 23% of the schools in India have just 5 to 30 children in classrooms. “These are not large numbers, and so the chances of infection spreading could be relatively lower. These institutions must open to prevent further reduction of children in the education system,” he said.
In January 2020, for the first time, the school dropout rate in India was less than 3%, but covid-19 will undo that, say experts. Apart from parents losing jobs, another common reason for children in India to drop out of education is poor digital infrastructure. Many regions face 14 to 16-hour power shutdowns, especially during monsoon.
“Poor connectivity during distance learning frustrates students. While access to technology is a huge challenge for rural children, parents in urban India are wary of sending children to school due to the virus. The common challenge is the mode of learning in the coming months, which will determine how many will return,” said Srini Raghavan, co-founder and chief executive officer at Educational Initiatives, which works with various state governments.
In cities, children have already started filling jobs left vacant by the migrant labourer exodus. Harshavaradhan, a class 10 student in Hyderabad, has taken up a job as a helper in a car showroom. “We had no choice but to send him to work. My husband lost his job last month. Harsha must pitch in. He can always go back to school after one or two years,” said Lathakumari, Harsha’s mother, who works as domestic help.
The Unesco assessment estimated the decrease in enrolment at the primary and secondary levels at 11 million. Globally, more girls are likely to be affected at pre-primary and upper secondary levels, while both boys and girls are at a greater risk of not returning to universities.