The coronavirus pandemic will see a rise in school dropouts, and technology can only be an aid, not the solution to problems that education faces, opine stakeholders

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every sector, including education across the globe. South Asia has had its schools closed down and disrupting educational services. The situation is resulting in children with learning deficit as well as children completely dropping out of the education system. Addressing the same, a web-talk on 'Reimagining Education on South Asia Post Covid-19' was organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) South Asia Office, New Delhi on January 24.

The discussion began with social entrepreneur and activist Fajer Rabia Pasha from Pakistan talking about Pakistani government's initiative during the initial months of the pandemic. She said, "To tackle the loss in the education sector, the government launched an education television channel Tele Taleem collaborating with civil society and edu-tech companies. An educational radio programme has been launched recently."

According to Pasha, this to an extent has supported students from low-income families living in the rural areas of Pakistan who do not have access to modern technologies to attend online classes.

Yet there is a challenge in delivery of education. However, she is happy to see the issues of education being highlighted at the national level due to the pandemic. "The education sector rarely used to get limelight before this. Now many webinars, discussions as well as media coverage on education are happening across the nation," she shared pointing out the positive effect of the pandemic.

In the case of India, the budget private schools of India have suffered due to the pandemic, as per Vikash Jhunjhunwala, Founder and CEO of Sunshine Schools in India. The students of such schools make 45 per cent of students enrolled in private schools (110 million), he said citing a report published by the Central Square Foundation, New Delhi.

"Families of students studying in the budget private schools have been affected the most by the pandemic.

So, most them are not paying school fees, which is leading to subsequently shutting down of schools. They have a lesser chance of revival at this point of time," he said.

Jhunjhunwala also pointed out how budget schools are not online-friendly as both institutions and students lack the technology required. A few are conducting online classes but they lack quality value, he added.

The education system of Nepal too has been affected by the pandemic.

Following the lockdown that began on March 24, 2020, the pandemic kept an estimated 8.5 million Nepali children away from their classrooms, threatening their progress in education, as per a 2020 report of UNICEF.

The same report states running online classes does not seem feasible for most rural schools in Nepal.

It is estimated only 63 per cent of the population in Nepal have access to Internet, according to Nepal Telecommunications Authority.

Only 13 per cent schools were able to run online classes (though 35 per cent schools have access to Internet).

With the aim of limiting negative impact of the pandemic on the learning opportunities of children, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology developed a learning portal with digital contents like e-books, interactive videos and learning games, audio and classroom lessons. These contents are categorised grade-wise and are accessible to children with an Internet connection.

To address the critical learning gap facing children during the COVID-19 pandemic, a coalition of teachers, education journalists, non-governmental organisations, local governments, and local radio stations launched a distance-learning radio programme called 'Radio Schools' across five districts of the country - this is benefiting more than 100,000 children in classes I to X.

However, a projection by the World Bank shows low and middle-income countries like Nepal will see a setback in the education sector due to COVID-19. It claims that learning will decline and dropouts will increase, especially among the most disadvantaged.

"The crisis will also increase the risk of dropouts," according to the report. "We know from other crises that the longer marginalised children are out of school, the less likely they are to return."

Now, schools have begun to reopen across the nation. But the persistent risk of infection continues to pose a challenge to the reopening efforts.

To balance the equation of pandemic and education, Atishi Marlena Singh, Member, Delhi Legislative Assembly wants the Indian government to focus on improving the access and quality of education provided by government schools. She also pointed out that the academic loss and psychological trauma will create a major hurdle in the education system in the post-COVID-19 situation. To address it, she suggested educational institutions to set up foundation of learning for the first two-three months after reopening of schools rather than pushing students towards rigorous preparation for board examination. She also advised setting up of counselling camps at schools to ease the burden of students.

Jhunjhunwala said the government should help schools resume offline classes partially to cover up losses incurred so far. As budget private schools of India are market-based, an online education does not work in their cases, he said while stressing that the government's support could control the dropout rate.

He added that technology is not a silver bullet for the ongoing problem. "Technology helps, but manpower is required to support, to guide and to make understand.

We can't have technology as a substitute; it can only be an aid (in delivery of education)," he explained.

In case of Pakistan, Pasha explained the government should learn from the elite private school system on how it has been maintaining the delivery of education.

As there will be a high number of student dropping out of schools due to the pandemic, Pasha stressed on the adoption of community-based learning approach where the community teachers visit houses of the students to understand their learning progression.

The session saw a participation of about 60 people from different South Asian countries along with Germany, and was moderated by Roshan Gandhi, CEO, City Montessori School, Lucknow, India.

FNF is an international non-profit organisation promoting the ideas of liberal democracy, respect for human rights, rule of law and economic freedom.