Of the many harmful consequences of the pandemic on society and economy, the most damaging one is the foundational learning loss it is causing to our future generation.
By foundational learning is meant the linguistic and mathematical abilities children acquire during their primary level of education. These abilities then become the foundation for further learning of children. Hence the linguistic and mathematical aptitudes a child acquires during its formative years known as foundational learning is so important in the development of its cognitive abilities.
Today's literate adults, too, in their formative years had undergone such a learning process and thus acquired their foundational abilities. Those among the adults whose fundamental abilities were compromised due to poverty, disease or any traumatic experience, know how what an indelible mark it left on their mental growth in their later life. These are but individual cases of learning loss in the life of adults.
But during the last one year we are witnessing something quite unheard of in the past. An entire generation is now facing the grim prospect of lost childhood. And of the precious childhood possessions they are being denied is their basic intellectual abilities-the fundamental learning abilities. And as everyone knows, the prolonged school closure due to the pandemic is the principal factor depriving our children of their basic learning abilities.
The pandemic is no doubt affecting the people's lives in more than one way. It reduces the economy's capacity to produce goods and services required to meet the present needs of the people in a society. And as a result of the production shortfall, the economy's and along with it, society's, further progress is stultified. Actually, its impact is directly felt by adult people who are in charge of the economy and society at present. And the adult individuals in charge of their respective areas of responsibility---family, business, teaching, research, social and political establishment or any other kind of work, you name it-- did learn their basic skills of life during their childhood. If, for any reason, they had lost their basic learning ability in their childhood, it would affect their present ability to lead society as adults.
The question is, how are our children faring in this regard at the moment?
Are our children growing the way they should during this early phase of their lives under the pandemic?
The answer is in the negative for obvious reasons: All the educational institutions of the country including schools are closed. A year has already passed since they were closed last year due to the pandemic. In March last year when the Covid-19 struck this part of the world, all kinds of social activities including children's schooling were suspended to contain the pandemic's spread among the people. It was initially thought that the measure was temporary, for it was at the back of about everyone's mind that the pandemic was a passing phenomenon. But now that a year has passed and rather than showing any sign of abating, the pandemic has been resurging with a vengeance, it is time we have a rethink of the policy of keeping the schools closed.
The issue here is not just of managing students' loss of an academic year through various measures including merging of sessions, introducing a shortened course of study or promoting to next class or level of education without test, that is, by way of the so-called auto-promotion. A session or an academic year at the secondary or tertiary level of education may be managed through manipulation. But what can never be managed is the learning lost during formative phase of life. A study on the pandemic-related loss of learning carried out in January this year by the AzimPremji University of Bengaluru, India, has revealed that prolonged closure of schools during the Covid-19 pandemic had left a significant negative impact on the learning levels of the children studied. The loss included two kinds of learning deficiencies. One, the new learning that the children could not acquire due to closure of schools. Two, forgetting the abilities (knowledge/skill) the children had already acquired when the schools were open. Some 16,067 primary school children from 1,137 schools situated across 44 districts in five states of India were brought under the study. The study brought to light the 'nature and extent of the 'forgetting' or 'regression' among the children so surveyed. The 'language and mathematical abilities' covered the 'foundational learning areas' impacted by the school closure. The study showed that on an average 92 and 82 per cent of the children across all the classes had lost at least one of the foundational abilities-language or mathematical ability-that they had learnt in the previous year (pre-pandemic time). The loss of the abilities could be known, for example, by assessing how far a student can 'read a paragraph with comprehension,' 'express the gist in her/his own words, or their ability to 'add' or 'subtract' numbers. From the AzimPremji University's study findings, it is not hard to guess that our schoolchildren, too, have undergone a similar experience of 'learning loss' as they have also been deprived of their education for over a year due to school closure. The authorities concerned need to think long and hard about the matter and find out a way to recover the fundamental learning abilities our children have lost by now.