COVID-19 impact social life & learning of CHILDREN
By Percy Cardozo
The COVID-19 outbreak was like a bolt out of the blue, stopping the world in its tracks. Cutting across all boundaries - natural or man-made, it has struck us silently at lightning speeds, causing unusual disruption to our daily routines. Never in recorded history has the world experienced such a catastrophe simultaneously affecting almost all regions of the world. The pandemic is primarily a health crisis but is it also having shattering consequences on every aspect of our living. The insidious virus has forced countries across the world to use lockdown as a preventive measure for the safety of its citizens.
Countries have rightly resorted to lock down as a preventive measure, nevertheless, suddenly it has thrown children's social life and learning out of gear. According to UNESCO, as of April 2020, 1.5 billion young people worldwide are out of school because of the pandemic. In India, almost 1.4 million educational institutions have been closed down affecting 300 million children and young people. Students have lost more than a month of schooling at a crucial time during the academic year. Without a doubt, this disruption is likely to affect the learning outcomes, particularly for those children who have academic challenges.
Besides this, the crisis is also likely to influence the mental well-being of all children. Besides academic work, going to school is vital for children to meet peers, have fun and learn social skills. Research points out that school acts as a protective factor against the onset of unfavourable behaviours in children and adolescents, hence prolonged closure of schools which isolates them from their school friends is a cause for concern, particularly during a crisis.
Educational institutions provide the much-needed anchoring for young people with mental health problems and academic routines serve as important coping mechanisms.
In the current rapidly changing environment, young people are experiencing substantial changes in their daily routine and social interactions. Conversations are dominated by media exposure to an enormous amount of information about the outbreak; this is causing distress, threatening their mental well-being.
For young people with mental health problems this going to be inevitably a tough time. Furthermore, children with disabilities, in particular, those with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Intellectual Disabilities are at risk greater risk of mental health challenges as they cannot always make complete sense of what is going on around them and express their feelings. Parents and educationists are raising concerns about the impact on children's overall well-being. Though parents are anxious about the safety of their children, they are also concerned about behavioural problems because of this unnatural home confinement.
The unprecedented demands on the health care systems and policymaking bodies have diverted all focus on mitigating strategies. With this the psychological needs of children and adolescents have become invisible. The UN in its latest Policy Brief on COVID-19 and its impact on children highlight that children are at risk of being the biggest victims of the pandemic. It points out that with the rising recession, unemployment and stress levels within the family children could be witnesses and victims of domestic violence.
Also, with educational institutions planning to take the online route to teach more children could be a risk of online abuse and exploitation.
It is of deep concern that the pandemic which has caused temporary disruptions in the lives of children may in the long run come in the way of enjoyment of educational rights by all children. Children with disabilities and those facing academic challenges, children living in remote areas and those living in temporary camps, children from families with no access to adequate infrastructure and technology are at a greater disadvantage.
These and many other disadvantages may increase the inequality in educational achievement, thus threatening the success of quality education of all. Studies have consistently shown that the longer the vulnerable groups remain out of school, the harder it is for them to return. Thus the schools must become functional for learning.
Policymakers need to recognise these concerns and respond sensitively to the needs.
However, decisions that will have far-reaching consequences on children's education and well-being must be guided by information and good planning. Safety of children, teachers and others in the schools should be a top priority. If the schools re-open with physical classroom learning issues such as safe transportation, infrastructure to maintain physical distancing, sanitation and medical facilities have to be considered. On the other hand, the remote teaching route would need to consider issues such as access to technology, home supervision, teacher skills in running remote classrooms and managing behavioural challenges.
To sum up it seems like the crisis has left us with more fears than solutions, but the aftermath may provide us with opportunities to rebuild our education system. It time for the system to consider local needs and adopt an integrated approach using local resources and technology more effectively.
Editor's note: The author is a Psychologist at Sangath, leading the Beyond Boundaries project which promotes & supports inclusion in the general education schools.