Costs to children mount as schools in India remain closed

A makeshift camp for migrant agricultural workers harvesting sugar cane in western India. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Parth M.

ALSUND, India – 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.

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 the ninth straight 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.

Manohar Padwi, 14, right, with his father in the sugar cane fields of western Maharashtra. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Parth M.N

“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 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.”

With her school closed, Mamta Jaysinge, 12, now spends her days doing chores and hauling sugar cane. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Parth M.N.

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.

Schools provide a way for girls in a conservative society to leave home, meet friends, spend time away from household chores and perhaps chart their own futures. In a country where about one-fourth of young women marry before the age of 18, attending school “is a core solution for keeping girls out of marriage,” Haque said. When schools reopen, she added, special efforts will be required to make sure that girls return.

Girls and boys already have very different experiences of the extended school closure. A survey of more than 3,000 households across India focusing on low-income families found that 71% of girls were engaged in chores at home, compared with 38% of boys. Higher percentages of boys than girls were able to spend time on their studies and access phones, often the only way to connect to the Internet.

With schools closed for months, some girls are facing increasing pressure from their families to marry. Sudha Varghese is an activist and nun who has worked for decades to educate girls from the Dalit community – formerly known as “untouchables” – in the northern state of Bihar. She estimates that she has prevented about a dozen child marriages in the last two months alone.

Some parents are telling their daughters, “You don’t have anything to do, you don’t have your studies, you’re just staying here, so let’s go, let’s get [your marriage] settled,” Varghese said.

Laxmi Kumari, an 18-year-old in grade 12 in the state of Uttar Pradesh, managed to avoid getting married once before, thanks to the intervention of a local nongovernmental organization. Now fresh exams loom in the spring, and she feels hopelessly behind after the long months without school. She tried her best to keep up: Her family doesn’t own a smartphone, so she cycled to a friend’s house twice a week to see what her teachers were sending. Still, she found it difficult to follow.

If she passes her exams, Kumari will try to convince her parents to postpone her marriage so she can pursue her dream of becoming a teacher. “But right now, I don’t know if I can pass given how much time has been lost,” she said.

Across India, educators have attempted to reach out to students in all kinds of unusual and creative ways, including using radio programs and loudspeaker tutorials to teach children without Internet access. One teacher even built a platform in a tree to get better cellular signal to transmit lessons. Despite such efforts, some children – particularly in rural areas of poorer states – have received little to no learning material.

Sonu Kumar Singh, a 12-year-old from an indigenous community, lives in a village called Jagtu in a rural district of the state of Jharkhand. He used to love putting on his school uniform – white shirt, maroon pants – and studying English. His government-run school has not provided any kind of distance learning since it shut in March, and even if it did, his family doesn’t own a smartphone.

“The year has gone by. I have forgotten all that I had learned at school,” Singh said. “Sometimes I open my books, but I don’t understand much.”

Rukmini Banerji, chief executive of Pratham Education Foundation, said she is especially worried about what will happen to kids in early adolescence who have fallen behind their grade level in math and reading skills. Such children and their families might decide further education is futile.

“It’s obvious to everyone, including themselves, that they’re not at a 14-year-old learning level,” Banerji said. “You could start to feel, ‘What’s the point?’ ”

Deepak Nagargoje, an activist who works with the children of migrant workers, said India’s emphasis on online learning is further widening the gap between privileged and underprivileged children. Some of the children currently working in the sugar cane fields in western Maharashtra will return to their villages once schools reopen, he said, but catching up will be difficult. “We run the risk of dealing with a rise in child labor and dropout rates,” Nagargoje said.

On a recent morning, 14-year-old Mauli Jadhav had just returned to his family’s makeshift hut on the edge of the sugar cane fields after filling up the day’s jugs of water. His education has been frozen since March.

He spends his day doing chores and in the evening sometimes plays cricket. “There are a lot of kids like me here,” he said. Someday, he added with excitement, the schools will restart and they will all go back home.

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