Impact of COVID-19 on Children's Early Education

Swakkhyar Deka Senior Information Officer, DIPR under Government of Assam
swakhyar deka

As the second wave of Coronavirus pandemic has begun lashing state after state in the country with ferociousness, Assam too has joined the growing list of states to close schools till Class V while putting restrictions on the higher schools, colleges and universities in respect to student attendance etc. Schools had only recently reopened in the state after a year of closure and this latest of wave of COVID-19 has put a serious question mark on the early education scenario of students who are at a critical stage of beginning their academic activities.

COVID-19 has been perceived worldwide as a significant threat to health and it has led to the closure of schools in every country across the world, putting approximately 1.5 billion children and youth out of schools.

Children are not indifferent to the tremendous impact of the pandemic. They experience fears, uncertainties, and physical and social isolation, and may fail to see the school for an extended period. Government entities worldwide have taken considerate actions to roll out remote learning through various channels to reach children at home, and make smart investments to support children's education in new innovative ways. Never before a crisis of this nature has been felt by families around the world: home-schooling is not only a massive disruption to parents' productivity, but it is also affecting children's social life and learning.

As the new wave of global COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfurl, the development of young children could not stop. It has majorly affected the education system across the globe, including parents and teachers, where everyone is making their way to ensure best practices for their students and children.

At least 40 million children worldwide have missed out on early childhood education in their critical pre-school year as COVID-19 shuttered childcare and early education facilities, according to a research brief published today by UNICEF last year when the first wave of the pandemic ravaged the world.

"Education disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are preventing children from getting their education off to the best possible start," said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. "Childcare and early childhood education build a foundation upon which every aspect of children's development relies. The pandemic is putting that foundation under serious threat."

The closures have also exposed a deeper crisis for families of young children especially in low- and middle-income countries, many of whom were already unable to access social protection services. Childcare is essential in providing children with integrated services, affection, protection, stimulation and nutrition and at the same time, enable them to develop social, emotional and cognitive skills.

Families play an essential role in education, and have agreed to provide significant inputs into a child's learning. Parents are being guided by the schools to manage the situation and talk about the coronavirus with their children.

Online teaching, the poor substitute of classroom teaching, is proving ineffective when it comes to early education, as it lacks in real interaction and physical proximity with the teacher and classmates.

Early childhood education is time-sensitive matter. Therefore, it is critical, not only for the future of the children, but of the entire society, that this matter be addressed urgently, and alternatives be devised promptly and children begin to receive the vital pre-school education.

The need of the hour is positive parenting. Parents' involvement must increase in the process. SOPs must be designed whereby teachers give training to parents on how to ensure that the child receives the required early childhood education. Wherever possible, online classes involving both parents and children can also be planned. Availability of time is the biggest concern here, especially in cases where both parents are working and taking on domestic duties as well. Policies for income/livelihood support will go a long way in ensuring that parents participate in the process.

Preschool children are too young to handle laptops or tablets or mobile phones to be available for the online session. Schools across have started special programmes for parents to ensure no stone is unturned in the child's development, even during the current pandemic.

Moreover, children so young should have very limited or no screen-time. Apart from its ill-effects on the child's health, there is the question of exclusion. A wide disparity persists when it comes to access to computers or mobile phones with an internet connection in Indian households. There is also a gender divide when it comes to accessibility to devices and technology. Despite these issues, this has evolved as one of the strongest alternatives to face-to-face teaching during the pandemic.

Children should be reached out via the traditional media – television and radio. This will increase accessibility to a great extent when compared to computer and internet based solutions and Kerala has already started streaming classes for older children via television.

Early Childhood Education (ECE) has been discussed in the New Education Policy 2020, but governments must step in by figuring out what needs to be done. It should involve experts in the area and formulate SOPs for the current situation. Also, attention should be given to a long standing demand of the civil society, that of amending the Right to Education Act to bring ECE under its ambit. The Government also needs to step up funding for ECE significantly, which has been emphasised by a recent UNICEF report as well.

Anganwadi workers can reach out to children by employing novel approaches while practicing social distancing norms, for example, in open air classrooms instead of indoor classrooms and meeting children in small clusters through the day in batches. These approaches can significantly help children in rural and underprivileged households.

There are no signs of the pandemic subsiding anytime soon. It is a pressing need of the hour that all possible approaches be employed according to feasibility and the children receive what is owed to them for a better tomorrow.