Rani dreams of pursuing her Bachelors in International Relations and working at the United Nations, more specifically the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees). She loves coming to school and takes pride in being a curious and diligent student. Given the impressive progress she is making in her classes, she has the potential of being accepted into some of the best colleges in the world. School also gives her a chance to take a break from her household responsibilities and keep aside, at least for a few hours, worries about finances, her mother’s ill health and her siblings’ academics.
But then the pandemic hit and physical school had to stop. Rani’s school decided to go online and while the decision was most welcomed, Rani was worried. Rani lives in a one room house with her parents and two siblings. Out of the five of them, only her father has a smartphone which he takes with him to work everyday. There is no other device available for Rani to connect to her online classes.
Since Rani is unable to join her classes, she gets more and more responsibilities at home. From cooking to looking after her siblings, she spends most of the day going through one chore after the other. After that, she phones her classmates to ask for information on what was taught in classes that day. She tries her best to study independently till late at night. She continues this routine week after week, too embarrassed to tell her teachers that she cannot afford to join online school.
Soon she begins to experience a sense of disconnection from her school community, leading to fewer and fewer conversations with her classmates. Her motivation to study independently almost disappears, her aspirations feeling more and more out of reach with every passing day.
Rani’s situation reflects the lives of many students all over India whose access to education has been disproportionately disrupted due to the pandemic and other related factors. We are aware that every child has the right to quality education. But in reality, there are multiple barriers in achieving this mission, these barriers having become even more evident after COVID-19 hit. While educational inclusivity refers to access to quality education to all, irrespective of gender, caste, class, religion, geographic location and much more, I would like to specifically address two challenges that emerge from the intersection of gender (females) and economic marginalization namely mindsets and access to resources.
With respect to mindsets, for many of our students’ families, a high school education for their daughters is not a priority. Instead, mastering household chores and preparing for a life of domestic responsibilities is considered far more important. Many families find it hard to imagine that educating their daughters has the potential to change the entire family’s socio-economic landscape. Typically, extensive awareness and counselling is required to help convince families to let their daughters complete their education and work towards financial independence. While this proves to be a herculean task even in regular circumstances, convincing them about this in the pandemic times is even harder. When basic day to day survival is threatened, it becomes more and more challenging for many families to keep prioritizing education. Moreover, seeing their daughters in front of devices all day long does not necessarily fit into their idea of education.
To overcome this, we believe in a partnership-based approach. We cannot fulfil our mission without the partnership and support of our students’ parents. Involving them in every step of the way, helping them understand our mission and how we plan on executing it, communicating expectations clearly, taking into consideration their contexts and expectations, regular dialogues to find common ground, etc. is crucial for their daughters’ success, both academically as well as beyond academics.
With regards to access to resources, online education needs materials and tools that not everyone has access to. While a learning device and a stable internet connection are absolute necessities, a conducive learning environment, a private space without noise and distractions could really help in elevating the student’s online learning experience. Without this, the online learning experience would be ineffective and unjust.
At Avasara, we have tried to manage this by customising and evolving our online learning programme as per our students’ resource availability. Ever since COVID-19 hit us, we have been much more proactive in gathering data about our students and their families every few months. These surveys have revealed a need for devices, internet, rations, medicines, employment opportunities and much more. Within the scope of what is doable, we began to raise funds to provide them with all the different kinds of support they needed from us, be it devices, monthly data packs or provisions. With more and more students getting regular access to devices and data, we gradually moved from an asynchronous model of learning to a completely synchronous one. This move led to greater engagement and academic achievement as well as a deeper sense of community and belonging in our students.
All of these experiences have led us to believe with conviction that educational inclusion is deeply tied to social, economic, and cultural inclusion. Unless we adopt a systems thinking approach to develop a sustainable model for inclusion, we cannot aim to reduce inequities and gaps in it.
Head of Department Counselling
Avasara Academy Lavale, Pune