Impact of Covid on children and their learning pattern
Every Wednesday, students of SAI International School in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, go home early to attend the last three periods of the day online. The idea, said principal Prakash Sahoo, is to keep the practice of online learning alive. In case the future holds another lockdown, the school can't let the newly-acquired blended teaching-learning skills atrophy.
This is just one of the many ways in which the pandemic has changed schooling forever. While the discourse outside has reset to exams, syllabus and “learning loss” measured in tests, educators find themselves grappling with an entire array of new and subtle changes. Principals of four private schools recently gathered to discuss the changes wrought by the pandemic at a round-table discussion organised by Careers360.
As Anju Wal, Principal, Shiv Nadar School, Faridabad pointed out, when schools reopened in 2022, the students who returned were no longer “the same human beings” they were when Covid sent everyone home in 2020. Some had turned “reflective, more curious”, some, “blossoming researchers”. At the same time, they had regressed in surprising ways. Precautions against Covid infections had become habits over two years and children, especially young ones, had grown unused to socialising, sharing things.
Veena Goel, Principal, Apeejay School Pitampura and Alka Kapur, principal, Modern Public School, Shalimar Bagh spoke of the serious toll the pandemic situation has taken on children's mental and emotional health.
Learning: Losses And Gains
While most discussions on education during the pandemic have revolved around learning losses, in some corners, there were “positive developments” as well. “Children we parted ways with have come back, many of them, as blossoming researchers,” said Ms Wal.
“They are looking at research as a habit, their knowledge building blocks have grown, personalised learning has become quite the key to their intrinsic learning model. They have adapted to the technology but that's not their goal. Their goal is to find out, be curious, be imaginative and restructure their role in the world. I see them more reflective, more curious."
Ms Goel agreed that a section of students, mostly in middle and high school, became “self-learners”. But younger children at the foundational or preparatory level found it much harder to keep up and among them, there are groups that demand special attention now.
“One does find there are large learning gaps for that group of students,” she said. “Isolation syndrome set in for quite a few and one has to not only work on academics but also take care of their mental and emotional health. First, get them out of it and then work towards the academic part of it. We find that children are unable to relate, two years have been a type of a vacuum."
Older students became “so proficient in typing…, they've forgotten the art of writing,” said Ms Goel with a laugh.
SAI International School Bhubaneswar is trying “different strategies” to ease Classes 10 and 11 back into the regular school system. “They need socialisation and over two years, they could not do that. Coming back, study is secondary as connections need to be built up. I have asked teachers to take a compassionate approach if they are going out of class, bunking,” said Mr Sahoo.
Workshops, trainings and extra classes are now more important than ever. SAI International conducted workshops on different ways of teaching and found that project-based learning is working. Classes set to write the board exams had to get used to writing tests in person again.
"Students have actually forgotten how to write well because all the time fair and unfair means were being used. It's become a big challenge to get them to the right track,” said Ms Kapur adding that Modern Public School Shalimar Bagh is holding extra classes “without compromising on the co-curricular activities”.
SAI International has “done an analysis of learning gaps” and created modules that students can study independently to close the gaps. “We are not looking at marks right now, but at the gaps and based on that we're designing our interventions,” said Mr Sahoo. The school is using small peer-learning “mentoring groups” of 10 students where one student excelling in a subject helps the rest. Similarly, parents have been brought in to hold discussions.
“There are gaps…[in the] learning of domains -- science, mathematics, language development” said Ms Wal. “Students chatting, conversing in articulate, fluent sentences, face to face is so different. Over the two years of uninterrupted digital [learning], I don't know how much digital conduct they learnt. We all attempted to do online safety sessions, digital courtesies, digital conduct but it doesn't work as well as in an open school space where the outcomes are visible so we can direct the training as per the immediate need.” Gauging responses online is difficult enough; it becomes harder still when students keep switching off their cameras.
Teachers discovered how conscious the children had become of their body image, said Ms Wal adding that: “They kept switching their cameras off because they didn't like how they looked.”
Emotional, Social Health
In fact, the decline in mental, emotional and social health is almost a bigger concern than academics, as Ms Kapur pointed out, and each school's counsellors and teachers are grappling with it. “Consistently reminded to maintain social distance”, children have now been left with “social anxiety”, she said.
The decline is sharpest in the seven-13 years age-group, Mr Sahoo noted, “because of loneliness, loss of family members, and parents' fear which transferred to their children”. His school has 11 counsellors.
The ubiquitous “covid guidelines”, enforced to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, have left their imprint on children's learning and development in unexpected ways. “For the last two years, parents have been in saviour mode,” explained Ms Wal.
“They have to protect their child from the pandemic….That has percolated, absolutely dispersed, into all aspects of the child's life. We say ‘Share food'. In the pandemic, the parents are saying, ‘Don't share food'. Just the values on which schools are built – values of co-existence, tolerance – are so overturned. Now, you become boxed in even if you're in the classroom.” Shiv Nadar School Faridabad had conducted sessions for parents to “help them feel secure and reassured their child is safe”, said Ms Wal.
In Mr Sahoo's school, the teacher calls each student once a week, “not to talk about academic progress but other issues”.
Some changes are permanent. “We've started working at changing our approach to learning, evaluation systems,” said Ms Goel. “We have to work at making our children independent learners and we need to instil in them that they need to take charge of their own learning. The blended approach will be there to stay. Children have learnt how to do it, teachers have learnt as well. Teachers are going out to meet smaller groups of children who need it.”
Then, as Ms Wal pointed out, online learning saw a sharp increase in parents' involvement in learning and parents will remain “pedagogical partners”. “Especially in the primary years, parents have been so invested and engaged. A lot of the online things we did, for three-10 year olds, would not have been successful [without parents],” she said. “For the first time…, parents had insight into a classroom. You were open to scrutiny, criticism, some appreciation. It was very unnerving for teachers but they got used to it,” she added.
The second major change was digital learning, not the shift to apps or software but developing a curriculum that works online. “Finding apps, software is a smaller challenge and that gap all of us bridged very quickly,” said Ms Wal, “But to have a sustainable digital curriculum, and to deepen and strengthen it, is a permanent impact of these two years, an unprecedented paradigm shift.”
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