‘Students have fallen months behind’: Learning levels drop sharply in Rajasthan’s rural areas amid Covid-19

Only 10 per cent of the total 425 students at a secondary school at Thapda village in Banswara’s Anandpuri block have smartphones at home. When Class 9 of 62 students is asked if they studied with a digital device, only one hand is raised.

Jyotsana’s middle finger purposefully traces each word of her Class 6 Hindi chapter “Nandan Dost”. Her reading rhythm ebbs when she bumps into words with three-four vowels. At the same time, twin sisters Manavi and Mahi of a premier school in south Rajashtan’s tribal Banswara city are hunkering down to take their Class 5 computer examination online.

The distance between Jyotsana’s government school in a village and twins’ is 45 km. And the gap in learning levels between rural and urban students is set to further widen, fear teachers and parents in rural areas.

In an academic year disrupted by the Covid pandemic, teachers returned to classes in January (Class 9-12) and February (Class 6-8) to a rude awakening: a significant drop in learning outcomes exacerbated by lack of smartphones and internet connectivity. (The Rajasthan government last week decided to again shut down schools for Classes 6 to 9).

Mahino piche chale gaye (students have fallen months behind)” is the refrain in far-off villages.

To understand the learning disparities between the digital haves and have-nots, The Indian Express visited 13 schools in five most-backward administrative blocks of Chhoti Sarwan, Sajjangarh, Kushalgarh, Anandpuri and Gangad Talai in Banswara located at the tri-junction of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

Jyotsana’s school is hemmed in by rocky dungris (small, denuded hills) and her Kharod Chhatra village in Chhoti Sarwan populated by labourers and small landholding farmers. Almost none of the students here have smartphones at home. Jyotsana’s friend Soniya sheepishly admits that she has forgotten bits of foundational mathematics.

Teacher Bahadur Singh Dindor says, “Before the Covid lockdown, students could rattle off tables up to 15. Now, they are struggling to remember the table of 5. Before the school reopened, the students had fewer means to keep up with their studies. It will take some time before their previous level is regained.” He concedes that maths and science will need more focus.

Against an average of 70 per cent in Rajasthan, 61.3 per cent rural children in Classes 6-8 could read a Class 2-level text in 2018 while in the neighbouring tribal district of Dungarpur (third lowest in the state), the figure stands at 51.9 per cent, shows NGO Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report. On another parameter of solving divisions, only 22.6 per cent children in Banswara could complete the task against a state average of 34.9 per cent. Dungarpur was ranked the lowest at 7.8 per cent.

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In April last year, the Rajasthan government launched the ‘Smile’ (Social Media Interface for learning Engagement) digital programme under which video links were sent on smartphones. Seeing little impact in villages, the government in November repackaged the programme (Smile 2.0) and teachers were asked to visit Class 1 to 8 students’ houses to give assignments and provide study material to them.

The Director of the Rajasthan Secondary Education Department, Saurabh Swami, says that around 90 per cent of the total 85 lakh government schoolgoers have been “connected” through WhatsApp groups or remote assignments. “After launching the first leg of the programme, we realised that only 40 lakh WhatsApp groups were created. To bridge this gap, we started the Smile 2.0 progarmme for giving in-person assignments to elementary students once a week while senior students were allowed staggered visits to schools in September to clear their doubt,” he says. The state has recently declared automatic promotion to Class 1-5 students.

However, of the 13 schools visited by The Indian Express, parents and students in five of them say visits by teachers were rare or non-existent when schools were shut.

An unlettered farmer with a two-room house made of bricks and cow dung at Umripada village in Choti Sarvan, Mohan Ninama cannot recollect if any teacher from the nearby upper primary school collected worksheets of his three children in Classes 3, 7 and 8. “They came only once. Yesterday, they collected a form for the Class 8 examination,” he says.

Students of another school at Kharsana village in Gangad Talai block cannot recall any teacher visit. In fact, the school broke for the day around three hours before its schedule when The Indian Express visited it on March 27. The reason? The students “wanted to prepare for Holi festivities”, says teacher Gulab Singh Dodiyar.

According to the Banswara education department, of the total 3.83 lakh students (both rural and urban), 70 per cent could study online.

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In the 13 schools, only 0-20 per cent students, mostly from senior classes, have smartphones at home, but most could not use them as their fathers or elder brothers toil in agricultural fields or lug bricks in neighbouring Gujarat.

For example, only 10 per cent of the total 425 students at a secondary school at Thapda village in Anandpuri block have smartphones at home. When Class 9 of 62 students is asked if they studied with a digital device, only one hand is raised.

“Before the pandemic, students could read ‘A Thirsty Crow’. Now, they have different ways to spell ‘crow’,” says teacher Dileep Pargi, adding that regaining the lost ground is an uphill task and may take “months”.

Despite the academic despair, some schools have gone the extra mile in remote villages.

“Teachers held classes in small groups for four-five months in line with Covid-19 guidelines. The task was tough because here houses are not concentrated at one place. If one house is there, another one is on another dungri. But we managed and prepared portfolios (which detail the academic progress) of students for internal assessment,” says Chetram Meena, a teacher at Baler Bhodhar in Anandpuri. Of the total 550 students, only 70-80 have smartphones at home.

Another secondary school at Dabri village at Gangad Talai also taught children in small batches. “We have prepared 360 portfolios,” says school in-charge Gautam Lal Pargi.

However, teachers also concede that remote lessons or e-learning could not substitute in-person classes. “In villages, children’s learning is limited to schools. At home, a few can devote time for education because of various factors such as low-income levels and lack of supervision by parents,” says a teacher from Sajjangarh.

To address the learning gap in rural areas, local activists advocate a foundational crash course for elementary schools during the summer holiday. “It’s a big setback for students. Unless, the Education Department draws a plan to hold a crash course in foundational learning, rural schoolchildren will lose out to their urban counterparts in the long run. Another factor that can improve learning levels is hiring local teachers so that they can be in constant touch with their students,” says Jayesh Joshi, secretary of Banswara-based NGO Vaagdhara, which works on tribal rights.

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