Returning to schools after pandemic: A simple start from where we left or a huge step needing a lot of support? (Firstpost)

As the schools start reopening, we cannot afford to forget that we are dealing with little humans with real minds and bodies

When Amay [name changed], a four-year-old, entered his early childhood years, preschools were closed due to pandemic, his initial experience of school started with online classes. These he found very difficult to sit through, but he somehow managed, though he didn’t enjoy the classes or learn anything much. When the schools eventually opened for physical attendance, the child was initially excited with the concept of going to school, meeting friends, playing and so on, but within a couple of days, he started resenting it.

He started showing signs of anxiety, every evening the child would become dull, would not eat anything and refused to go to sleep as he innocently said: “If I sleep, soon there will be morning and you will send me to the school.” Same is the story of Shahida [name changed], a five-year-old, who started becoming physically sick more often with frequent episodes of fever and no physiological explanation for the same.

What is common in the story of these two children and millions of others as well? It is the fact that they belong to the cohort of millions of children whose early learning years were eaten up by the pandemic and now that the schools have opened, suddenly everyone including their parents, teachers and the entire education system has become busy with making sure that the “syllabus” is completed and everything that has been “lost” in terms of learning over past two years is learnt as fast as possible. Whether or not these children had access to remote learning modes, the pressure of coping up with the learning deprivation is experienced with similar intensity by children.

We need to admit that returning to school after a pandemic is tough for children in all age groups and needs special strategies and support mechanisms. The prolonged learning deprivations due to pandemic-induced school closures have amplified school adjustment issues in children. As the schools start reopening, we cannot afford to forget that we are dealing with little humans with real minds and bodies and not any rusted machines which can automatically spring back to action once oiled and upgraded to start producing the products we want them to produce.

Children howling in the morning using all the powers within their tiny bodies to resist being sent to the schools, parents looking at them with a firm, yet helpless gaze has become a common sight these days.

Believing that everything will get back on track by operating under pressure and focusing only on special academic interventions while turning a blind eye to what the children are feeling, experiencing, and going through can be a mistake. Pressurising children too much can create chronic and toxic stress in them which is proven to be counterproductive as it negatively affects the capacity to learn as well as wellbeing of the children. With current increase in the probability of increased drop out, this can further push more children out of the education system.

Trend of children not being able to and not wanting to come back to school is clearly evident now, a recent report from Odisha stated that 30 per cent of their school children amounting to around 20 lakh children have not been attending the schools. While Odisha took active initiative and came out with this analysis, one can be sure that if other states take up these kinds of analysis, they might end up getting similar or even worse trends. While access also continues to remain a challenge and strengthening the public school system therefore continues to be a priority, but there is this whole other aspect of children losing their confidence and their skills of social and emotional regulation to stay away from home and learn in school settings which needs attention.

To begin with, let us first try and tweak the narrative we have collectively created about how children can be supported in post pandemic era to say it is not the children’s fault that the learning deprivation happened, and they have all the capacity to learn provided they are not pressurised and made to feel bad about learning. And most importantly as the NEP-2020 also says and Foundational learning mission – Nipun Bharat also indicates – play is the core, activity based experiential learning is the way to go, so rather than bombarding children with tests, additional hours of mundane learning exercises, let’s consider the following:

  • Schools and communities working together to ensure that children start perceiving schools as safe spaces where they can be themselves and are not in constant pressure to perform.
  • While the curriculums are being adapted, bridge classes are being planned, involving more and more play, and learning through play in these. In fact, unstructured free play should also be given a vital place in our daily plans as the schools reopen.
  • Collectively coming out of the paranoia of “learning loss”, by consciously thinking and believing that slowly the children will pick up if we focus on what they know and how they feel.
  • Ensuring that the schools have dedicated time for sessions on social and emotional aspects of learning. These must essentially be part of curriculums and daily plans these could include activities which help children in expressing their feelings, getting catharsis to any pent-up emotions or stress that they have, coping up with change and gaining confidence in their ability to learn.
  • Making the school environment welcoming and safe, not only physically but also emotionally, this will require lifting the stress about completing the syllabus.
    Love, care and believing in children is the magic quotient that is needed in addition to academic support and curriculum revisions to help our little ones initiate and/or continue their schooling.

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