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Continuing Education in times of an Epidemic

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By ROLI S

A mid the novel coronavirus outbreak, the Cabinet Secretary on Wednesday said all States and Union Territories should invoke provisions of Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 by means of which all advisories issued by the Union Health Ministry and state governments from time to time are enforceable. COVID-19, the virus, has arrived, and it has clamped down on the entire planet Earth. Finally, after much contemplation, even WHO declared it a pandemic on Wednesday. I do not have much data on how education systems and schools are coping with this scare in other parts of the world, but my heart goes out to the lakhs of students who are taking their board exams at this time of the year in India and all the other students who are preparing to write or have given their final exams and are eagerly waiting to go to the new classes. I remember the excitement of students and their eagerness to know their results. But this year, to this eagerness and excitement, another emotion has been added that is of uncertainty and anxiety due to COVID-19. In the month of April, new academic sessions begin in the schools of India but most of the states and UTs are now giving orders to close down the schools and it means missing classes altogether. It also means a late start to the new academic session and this situation gives me reason to dwell deeply into the school based contingency planning and preparedness of the education sector. Do our private and government schools have any sort of emergency management to deal with problems like COVID-19, especially when it comes to a situation where schools have to be shut down completely for an indefinite period of time? Closing down schools before a disease becomes widespread will definitely help slow, even check, its spread in the community, but the lack of guidance and knowhow on the part of schools, teachers and families with regard to educational continuity and psychosocial support in case of long time closure of the schools, is a matter of concern. This COVID-19 pandemic is surely not the last that will threaten school continuity all across the globe, especially given the research on how climate change will affect infectious disease occurrence. Now, it becomes necessary to identify ways to continue educating and supporting students and teachers if schools are closed. Research should be conducted and from radio, podcast, or television broadcasts to online programmes or virtual peer learning circles, all mechanisms, teaching methodologies and approaches must be explored and tried out so that they can be used in such trying times to extend education continuity. Need assessment of schools in terms of instructional goals will help in this case. Based on the need assessment, a contingency plan should be ready with every school. There should be provisions in every school to hold online classes for primary and secondary students. WebEx, Google, Zoom technology can be used to beam classes into students’ homes. Teachers can also upload audio-visual worksheets and homework, etc., on mobile apps. E-learning platforms like Unacademy should be made use of, but for all this to take place comprehensive awareness and teacher training programmes should be initiated in major private and public schools. The threat of COVID- 19 is not something that is a passing phase – this has come to wake people up. A few policy decisions have to be made in terms of the way we lead our lives, and educate our children. There is no doubt it should be given top priority. The school community of our country must strengthen monitoring, evaluation and documentation of alternative modes and methods of distance and flexible education and learning, including how they support the psychosocial well- being of learners and teachers. Enough research must be conducted and synthesis of already available research be done about distance and flexible education interventions in crisis situations that can be scrutinised and examined at the school-level, so that when an epidemic or any other form of disaster strikes, schools are better prepared to not only protect students and educators from the problem, but to continue to impart quality education in spite of that. In the end, let me put it this way – even seasonal situations can bring with them lessons that last a lifetime. Let us hope that COVID-19 doesn’t last, but let this virus prepare us for the one that may, in the future. Here’s a rule of life: We don’t get to pick what bad things happen to us, but we can definitely be prepared when they do.

(Roli S is an Educator, Teacher Trainer, Author and School Reviewer based in Mumbai)