India Interior

The blackboard must beckon

Preeti Mehra | Updated on October 02, 2020 Published on October 02, 2020

Covid impact: Mental health issues and children dropping out of school must be tackled urgently

Covid-19 has taken its toll on the emotional well-being of adolescents out of school. Fear for their future is palpable among all those invested in children and adolescents.

It is six months now since schools were closed across the country. The concern is that when they reopen, a large number of children from vulnerable and marginalised communities would be missing from the classrooms — having been put to work outside or absorbed into unpaid care within the family. Girls, especially, are at greater risk, with early marriage another possibility for discontinuing education.

Though some students have had access to online classes during the ongoing pandemic, most, who live in rural areas, urban ghettos or city slums, have been in touch with school only sporadically on borrowed handsets and are vulnerable to losing out on education in the long run.

This has nudged child-centric organisations to apply appropriate strategies to sensitise students, parents, school principals and administrations and try to involve them in a dialogue that children must be brought back to school when it becomes possible. Many of them have lost their school documents during the mass migration back to their home States.

One such campaign being launched next week in Sonipat, Haryana, is the district helpline started by the local administration and aided by Breakthrough India, an organisation working to end violence against women and girls. Christened, Bacchon ka Saathi, it aims to improve school enrolment of children and their emotional well-being.

“We have been reaching out to school managements and district authorities in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, to make efforts to ensure full enrolment of girls when schools reopen after the lockdown. The Sonipat district helpline number is an initiative for all three — adolescents, teachers and parents — to enable them to deal with mental health, re-admission issues through expert councillors and psychologists,” explains Sohini Bhattacharya, President & CEO of Breakthrough India.

The helpline comprises around 60 counsellors who will interact at different levels with teachers and parents trying to cope with such a difficult situation or distraught adolescents who do not know whom to turn to.

While tracking the community of school students it generally works with in the States of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Haryana, where early marriage and crimes against women are rampant, Breakthrough found that staying away from school is having more than just an impact on academics. While actual subject learning may be caught up with in the future, mental health issues and children dropping out seem to be the collateral damage that needs to be addressed sooner than later. Speaking to panchayat heads, anganwadi workers, school heads and parents, Breakthrough realised that issues had to be addressed on several fronts. Due to lack of mid-day meals, children’s nutrition is being affected. Also, they are not getting sufficient attention, with parents scrambling to make ends meet in an atmosphere of joblessness.

Besides the helpline, Breakthrough started other initiatives from July itself. It started talking to State governments and began smaller classes with social distancing on the ground in some districts. It also engaged with parents who had smartphones, by sending them videos on parental issues. “We introduced interactive games between parents and adolescents and have reached out to 75,000 to 80,000 students during the pandemic,” says Bhattacharya. Breakthrough’s concerns have been repeatedly echoed by other organisations as well. In June, Child Rights and You (CRY) held an e-consultation with child experts and warned of an imminent increase of child labour in agriculture and family enterprises.

It felt “the closure of schools exacerbates the risk of increase in working children, since drop-out children will either be directly supporting their families, or caught in trafficking, begging, debt bondage and other exploitative work conditions.”

Enforce child labour law: CRY

CRY recommended stringent enforcement of the child labour law and an Integrated Child Protection Services Scheme to safeguard children from the impact of Covid-19, including what the economic slowdown would bring with it. For children with no access to online or mobile learning, it called upon the government to open special training centres for bridge classes, with social distancing.

Research group Young Lives’ survey amongst headmasters of 183 schools between July and August in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where cohorts from its longitudinal research on childhood poverty live, reveals that most head teachers felt that the effects of the school closure would be longlasting. It corroborates what child experts have been repeating ad nauseum about students from marginalised groups. It says, “Fewer than half of schools were intentionally targeting support at their weaker learners and an even lower proportion were targeting students from the poorest households. This was despite most head teachers agreeing that these groups were at particular risk of falling behind in their learning or dropping out. These findings suggest that concerns about the school closures exacerbating existing inequalities are well-founded and that there will be a lot to do to narrow these gaps when schools reopen, including ensuring that all children return.”

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Published on October 02, 2020

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