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Open schools, with a focus on early grades

By Karthik Muralidharan,

As the 2nd wave of Covid-19 recedes, one of our top priorities should be to open schools safely.

Entities such as UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Bank, and more have all put out detailed recommendations to guide school reopening efforts.

Even before the pandemic, India faced a severe learning crisis — with nearly 50% of class 5 students in rural India unable to read at even class 2 level. The pandemic and 16 months of school closures have almost certainly made the situation worse. A recent study by the Azim Premji University estimates that 92% of children in classes 2-6 have lost their language skills and that 82% have lost math skills. The costs of these 16 months of school closures are likely to be long-lasting and could potentially scar an entire generation of Indians.

For instance, in a recent study on the consequences of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, economist Jishnu Das and colleagues found that just four months of school closures led to learning losses of nearly two entire grade levels over time. How could four months of school closure lead to two years of learning loss? One possibility is that teachers continued with regular grade-level instruction and children who had fallen behind could no longer keep up. In other words, missing even four months of school not only hurt the level of learning, but may have permanently reduced the rate of learning in school, leading to a much larger cumulative learning losses over time.

Another key insight was that learning losses were highly unequal; children with educated mothers were able to make up for school closures but children with uneducated mothers were particularly badly affected. Thus, the trade-off between increased infection risk from opening schools and loss of learning from keeping them closed is likely to vary sharply by socio-economic status. For educated parents with access to technology at home (who dominate the public discourse), it may have made sense to teach their children at home. But, for tens of millions of children with uneducated parents and limited access to technology, the costs of school closures are likely to have been much higher.

Thus, the single most important task for the new education minister is to ensure rapid but safe opening of schools. The minister has stated that implementing the new National Education Policy (NEP) is his top goal, and NEP correctly identifies that the highest priority for our education system should be to deliver universal Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN). However, this goal will be stillborn if schools remain closed.

Fortunately, we now know enough about Covid-19 to be able to open schools safely. Entities such as Unicef, Unesco, the World Bank, and the India Task Force of the Lancet COVID-19 Commission have all put out detailed recommendations to guide school reopening efforts while minimising infection risk. In reopening schools, we should aim to implement these recommendations and minimise health risks. In addition, I outline six key principles to ensure that school reopening can mitigate learning losses.

First, consistent with school education being a state subject, the decision on opening schools and the modalities for doing so should continue to be left to the states. However, the central government should provide guidelines, technical support, and financial resources to make it easier for states to do so.

Second, while the instinct of many officials is to first open classes 9-12 because of board exams, the bigger priority should be opening classes 1-5 to ensure universal mastery of foundational skills as prioritised by NEP. A large body of evidence highlights the importance of early years in the formation of human capital and our school opening priorities should reflect this. Further, while older children can still absorb content online, through self-study, and virtual groups, in-person interactions with teachers are much more important at younger ages.

Third, it is essential to pay attention not just to opening schools but to modifying pedagogy to account for 16 months of school closures. Simply teaching the textbook may be ineffective if children have fallen far behind grade-level standards. Rather, schools and teachers should be encouraged to focus less on the textbook, and more on basic skills of literacy and numeracy and remediating learning losses.

Fourth, we should move from the rigid “scheme-based” model of central government funding to a more flexible model with greater spending autonomy to states and districts. For instance, one innovative idea proposed recently by Rukmini Banerjee of Pratham Education Foundation is that Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) funds be used to pay daily honorariums to 10th and 12th pass youth in villages who provide remedial instruction to help children make up for learning losses. More generally, since we are in uncharted territory, we will need to innovate, iterate, and respond quickly based on varying ground realities across the country.

Fifth, school openings should not be treated as an all-or-nothing decision. There are likely to be substantial benefits even from a partial reopening of schools (e.g. where 50% of students in a class attend every alternate day). This will enable social distancing while allowing students to engage with teachers and peers.

Finally, since private schools account for nearly 50% of school enrollment in India, they should also be allowed to open under the same guidelines as government schools.

Media and policy attention during the pandemic understandably focused on the immediate tasks of saving lives by procuring beds and oxygen. Yet, the greatest long-term cost of the pandemic may be borne by our children. As the second wave of Covid-19 recedes, and we slowly try to restore a semblance of normality, one of our top priorities as a country should be to open schools safely.

Karthik Muralidharan is the Tata Chancellor’s professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, and global co-chair of education at the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (JPAL). Vishnu Padmanabhan contributed to this piece. The views expressed are personal.

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