Up close and personal

Handling COVID and parallel damages

Two distinct timelines have emerged in the past year – life before the pandemic and life after the pandemic. And in between comes the stories of learnings, adaptability, resilience and finding smart solutions to huge problems. Over 320 million children have been affected due to the closure of learning facilities, and over 10 million girls may never return to schools. Disruption in children’s education emerged as a major challenge. While the older students struggled with accessing online classes and adjusting to the new normal, the learning responsibility of children between 3 and 6 years fell on parents and caregivers. If battling discrimination and the digital divide was not enough, dread of hunger, harmful labour, early marriage and trafficking loom large on their uncertain future.

Save the Children globally launched its calls and actions urging leaders and decision makers to act immediately on the learning emergency that the pandemic induced prolonged school closure has snowballed into. Starting from 1 June 2021 (International Children’s Day) to 8 September 2021 (International Literacy Day), 50 countries across the globe urged for protecting a generation of learners.

Save the Children in India joined the movement through online and offline spaces in order to mobilise commitments and voices on the ground and among public advocating for low tech and no tech solutions to improve access, especially for girls.

When schools shut down last year, online classes emerged as an immediate solution to ensure learning continuity. But the huge digital divide in the country came in the way of a smooth transition. The yawning digital divide contributed to gender inequality as well. Around 36% of Indian males have mobile connectivity compared to only 16% of females. Women often rely on the male members of the family to access the internet. This divide plays a significant role in the education of children. Without access to affordable smartphones or laptops, imparting day-to-day lessons become impossible. Since the responsibility of a child’s education largely rests on the mothers in the family, her access to a smartphone becomes crucial.

Bhayashree lives with her four-year-old son, husband, mother-in-law, father-in-law and brother-in-law in Hiremuddenahalli, Karnataka. “Before the lockdown, we would send our son to the Anganwadi Centre (AWC). When the schools shut, my husband and brother-in-law would go out to work, and my in-laws are old. I had to take care of household chores as well. I was worried about my son’s learning, didn’t know what and how to teach him,” she said.

The Gulmohar curriculum, Save the Children’s flagship low-tech solution to take learnings to the doorsteps of children, connecting Anganwadi workers, teachers and parents through regular calls, WhatsApp groups and SMS services were scaled up through strategic partnerships. The module has a pool of activities that helps parents with tools and tips to keep children in the 3-6 age group engaged at home using household items like fruits and vegetables. The framework is based on the principle that children learn the best through play and by interacting with their surrounding environment.

Bhayashree among many mothers attended a parents’ meetings on the Gulmohar module and how children in the 3-6 age group can be taught while doing household work. She was also added to a WhatsApp group where activities for children were discussed, and parents shared videos of their children doing those activities. Now, Bhayashree’s entire family is involved in her son’s learning. “His grandparents narrate him stories, his father and uncle taught him names of vegetables, fruits, flowers, body parts etc. His learning has improved a lot,” she said.

To cut across the digital divide, Save the Children collaborated with the Karnataka Department of Women and Child Development and All India Radio (AIR) to broadcast nine episodes of 15 mins every Saturday (March to May 2021) on early learning techniques that can be adopted by parents or caregivers. The idea was to reach out to 39,100 people in 23 districts while promoting play based learning through audio-visual content.

Sumangala Bandi, an Anganwadi worker from the Koppala district, was troubled with how to reach out to the children, caregivers, pregnant and lactating mothers during the prolonged lockdown. Around this time she started tuning to ‘Haadu Mathadu (Let’s Sing and Talk) – Season 2’, the radio programme organized by Save the Children and All India Radio Karnataka.

"I reached out to the dedicated number announced on radio and started sharing videos of children on the WhatsApp group. I also told caregivers, Anganwadi workers, supervisors, and officials about the radio program. Every Saturday after the program, I would get activity videos of children and share it on the dedicated number," said Sumangala.

Once the program series got over, Sumangala was keen on keeping up the learning momentum. She became a part of the AIR WhatsApp group which already had more than 100 caregivers and Anganwadi workers from 23 districts of Karnataka. Save the Children was reaching out to more than 5,000 children through IVR (Interactive Voice Response) calls and WhatsApp groups. Other strategic partnerships like with Xavier Institute of Social Science (XiSS), Jharkhand Education Project Council (JEPC)

While Whatsapp became a go-to platform for helping parents in South, we made inroads through innovations in the areas cut off from connectivity, digital access and availability of smart and technical devices.

Like for instance, Tangnar is a quaint village in Kashmir’s Budgam district. The picturesque village is home to predominantly a tribal population, comprising Schedule Caste & Schedule Tribes, dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. Cut off from mainstream areas, access to basic infrastructure is an everyday struggle in this remote corner. Institutional lockdowns due to the pandemic made life in this village, particularly for the children, all the more hard.

Bashir Ahmad Hajam, a resident of Tangnar, the 38-year-old man, is a daily wage worker, supporting his wife, two daughters and a son. Making ends meet was hard for Bashir even during the pre-pandemic days, but he was determined to educate all his children. All three children of his – Uzma (14), Shazia (16) and Sanidul (15) were enrolled in a government school.

When the lockdown was imposed in 2021, Bashir could not find any work, pushing his family to the brink of starvation. It also brought to a halt his children’s access to education, with schools shutting down indefinitely. The government had ordered online classes, but Bashir could not afford a smartphone or a laptop. With the discontinuity in their learning, his children faced the possibility of dropping out of school.

"Arranging for a smartphone during lockdown was impossible in my village. Moreover, I was struggling to feed my family. A smartphone was beyond my reach. Without a smartphone at home, I was helpless to prevent my children from dropping out of school, especially my daughters, who I knew would never get a chance to continue their education if they dropped out now," said Bashir.

"My sister and I were very disheartened to see all other students continuing their classes on phones and laptops, but we could not. We would often share our fears of not being able to go to school if we dropped out. Life would completely change for us if our father stopped sending us to school," shared Uzma.

Hope came when Save the Children started distributing food, hygiene and dignity kits in the village. During the process of identification of families for our intervention areas in Kashmir, Bashir’s family was selected as one of the beneficiaries. These kits came with ration for two months, soap, hair oil, cream, toothbrush, paste, underwear, sanitary napkins, shaving kit etc. With his daily expenses taken care of after receiving the kits, Bashir Ahmad was able to buy a smartphone for his children. They are now able to attend online classes.

Save the Children amplified call for such solutions through a petition urging Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan to ensure learning continuity through equitable access to learning materials for girls. Development of low-tech and no-tech solutions, ensuring psychosocial wellbeing support to combat the impact of COVID-19 for children, parents, caregivers and educational personnel, uninterrupted provision of mid-day meal during closure of educational facilities and dedicated financial support to ensure continuity of learning of children who have lost both or one of their parents due to COVID-19 are among the recommendations in the petition.

The key campaign moments like that invoked public participation and empathy were joined in by influencers from all walks of life including politicians, academicians, artistes and other civil society organisations like Breakthrough, Sayfty, Red Dot foundation, RTE Forum, Center for Social Research, Yuvaa, Yuwaah youth wing of UNICEF. #MySchoolMemoryChallenge, a public moment to relive the nostalgia of school through sharing of school memories on social media reached 4.8 million people.