Out in the fields, the adults were chopping towering stalks of sugar cane, but Mamta Jaysinge did what she could. The 12-year-old gathered the woody stems where they fell and tied them into a bundle almost as tall as she was. Then she lifted it onto her head and carried it to a waiting truck.
With her school closed, Mamta Jaysinge, 12, now spends her days doing chores and hauling sugar cane.
Any other year, Jaysinge would be studying in the modest school near her village in western India. It closed in March. Now she spends her days fetching water, cooking meals and hauling cane.
Online learning is out of the question. “We were struggling to eat,” Jaysinge said, “so how would we manage to get a smartphone?” She misses school and hopes to return as soon as it reopens. Until then, she said, “I’m trying to help my parents in whatever way I can.”
Jaysinge is one of tens of millions of Indian children who have not seen the inside of a classroom since March, a hiatus that educators say is without precedent in the country’s history. In major metropolises such as Mumbai and Delhi, schools remain shut for a ninth month. While some states have reopened high schools, the majority of India’s 320 million students remain at home as part of the effort to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Experts say the consequences of school closures on the country’s most vulnerable students — especially girls — could be serious. Students from poor and marginalized communities face enormous hurdles to continuing their education even in normal times. Now many of their families are under severe financial stress as India’s economy contracts. The absence of schooling combined with falling incomes is likely to lead to higher rates of child labor and child marriages.
“Even a year of lost education has been recognized as having significant economic, health and employment effects,” said Vikram Patel, a professor of global health at Harvard Medical School who divides his time between India and the United States. “Imagine when you translate that into tens of millions of children.”
School provided a critical anchor for children like Jaysinge. Every winter, her parents travel hundreds of miles for six months of backbreaking labor in the cane fields. Normally, they leave her with relatives so she can study. This year, for the first time, they brought her with them.
Not far from Jaysinge, 14-year-old Manohar Padwi was loading chopped sugar cane into the same truck. His education, too, hangs by a thread. If schools were open, his mother said, Padwi would have somewhere to go each day and would at least receive one cooked meal. Instead, his parents decided to take him with them for the harvest to share the workload. They don’t have the money to buy a ticket to send him home even if schools do restart.
Students like Padwi have already fallen behind in their studies. A nationwide survey by the nonprofit Pratham Education Foundation found that only about a third of the students in rural areas had received any learning material in the previous week. Although smartphone use is increasing, less than half of Indians are Internet users.
The shift to remote learning is resulting in “enormous dropouts and substantial learning losses” that will reduce the earning potential of a generation of students, the World Bank said in a recent report on South Asia.
Other impacts may take time to emerge. In India, schools also act as a linchpin of efforts to improve nutrition by providing students cooked meals, often with proteins such as eggs. Those endeavors, too, are on hold. States have made attempts to replace those meals by sending rations or cash to families, albeit with varying degrees of success.
India’s government said Jan. 2 that experts have recommended for emergency use two coronavirus vaccines. (Reuters)
India has the second-largest number of coronavirus cases in the world, but daily infections have fallen sharply in recent months. “We must prioritize the reopening of schools,” said Patel, who notes that India’s climate would allow for outdoor classes in much of the country. But children appear “expendable when it comes to the health of grown-ups.”
For girls, the situation could be especially precarious. The Indian government, multinational organizations and nonprofit groups have spent years trying to reduce the gap in school enrollment between boys and girls, with some notable progress. Now such gains are “definitely at risk,” said Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF’S representative in India.