COVID-19 has disrupted education system and learning environment in almost all countries. It has exposed our lack of crisis preparedness and the fragility of our global education system.
Most of the colleges, universities and schools have been closed in many countries to prevent the spread of the virus. According to the UNESCO report, 1.6 billion children across 191 countries have been disturbed by the temporary closure of the educational institution. In the case of Nepal; schools, colleges and universities have been closed since country-wide lockdown which was started from Chaitra, 2076 and still prevalent in some local levels. Since schools and universities have remained closed, it has adversely affected students. Addressing the current pandemic situation, Government of Nepal has also launched its first governmental E-learning portal as an open library for the Nepalese students, known as Sikayi Chautari which contains curriculum from Grade 1 to Grade 10. Besides these many universities and colleges has now started running online classes which have become the most important methods in this pandemic situation to enhance for better education and better learning. The emerging practice of using technology in education has been promoting E-learning (online learning) among Nepalese students. . Although some educational institutions have started E-learning (online classes) it remains as a major challenge to involve all student`s active participation and involvement.
Nepal belongs to the least developed countries with a high poverty rate. Despite the progress Nepal has made in recent years, poverty still remains one of the major problems. About 25.2 % of people in Nepal live below the poverty line. People of Nepal have average income and the first most problem will be in access to digital devices. Not all family have the capability to buy digital devices as well as this pandemic has raised financial issues among most of the family members. The World Bank projects about 31.2 percent of our population faces significant risks of falling into extreme poverty, primarily because of reduced remittances, foreign earnings of potential migrants, job losses in the informal sector, and rising prices for essential commodities as a result of COVID-19. Many of them have already lost their job and faced huge losses in business, while many families are deprived of foods and essential materials. So, it is clear that family facing these problems will have food, shelter and essential materials as their priority needs rather than spending their money in learning through E-courses or buying digital devices. Spending money to buy internet access or mobile data is a big challenge for people suffering from financial issues.
Ayush Ojha, 14 a resident of Rupa -2, Kaski is a nine class student who has access to Smartphone but doesn’t have internet service at his home. His parent cannot afford an internet connection that costs their month’s salary. So, it is difficult for him to take classes every day although he used to go to his friends home to attend classes.
Through E-learning is considered as cost-effective, Government of Nepal lags well behind in providing free internet services in all parts of Nepal. Even the Internet connections provided by Internet service providers are unreliable and poor and in some places, the cell phone connection is still a problem. Also providing internet connectivity to all people is a very expensive investment for the governments of developing countries like Nepal who has other major issues to deal with.
In this case, E-learning will not be suitable for those who do not have regular access to internet facility or electronic devices. Nearly more than 80% of people of Nepal live in the rural part of Nepal. As many parts of Nepal are covered with hills and mountains and due to difficult geographical situation of Nepal, people living in the rural part of Nepal face many problems because of unmanaged roads, bridges, rivers, inadequate supply of electricity, absence of internet availability, unavailability of phone towers and all these factors are the barriers for conducting effective E-learning in those areas of Nepal. Some universities have started online courses in this COVID-19situation but it seems to be effective in the urban part of Nepal only. Most of the teachers and students from the rural part of Nepal may not be familiar with using technology in the right way as they are less exposed to technological advancements. In this part teachers with traditional teaching, experiences should be capable of using all the new technological means and devices like using webcams, the email, videos, audios, slides, Microsoft packages, and also should have good typing skills and capable of dealing with many numbers of students at one time. It would become a great challenge in introducing E-learning courses out in rural areas simply because essential requirements wouldn’t meet.
This educational disruption will continue to have substantial effects, extending beyond education. The disruption also concerns health and psychosocial issues, since educational institutions also serve as platforms for prevention, diagnosis, and counselling. Similarly, unavailability to attend the regular online classes has created numerous psychological problems for both students and teachers. The one with better economic status will have proper access to internet and electronic devices whereas the one with lower economic status lacks proper and adequate access to internet & electronic devices that directly affects their participation in e-learning courses. COVID-19 has shown that education institution closures represent an increased risk of mental problems, such as stress, anxiety and depression as well as types of abuse, such as domestic violence, early and forced marriages.
Sumitra Aryal, 22 a resident of Bhimad-4, Tanahun an undergraduate student of public health says she has two siblings and only one Smartphone available at her home. Her sisters also have online classes at the same time so she feels difficulty in taking online classes most of the time and misses several classes and assignments. Thus, the three take turns participating in the class.
The Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology has been less active in dealing with educational problems in this pandemic and have been criticized heavily. The halted exams of SEE, Grade 11 & 12 and almost all levels have drawn huge attention and dragged huge criticism to the government on inactiveness to deal with the issue. With higher criticism from the public, the government have initiated several programs like TV shows, mobilizing private educational sector as well as providing effective notice to the students. Similarly, it also has given permission to conduct online classes at different levels to both private and public institutions. A number of schools and colleges, mostly privately-run attempted to switch to online classes in late Jestha. However, many of them halted their efforts after the government instructed schools in Shrawn, 2077 not to enrol new students amid the pandemic and end online classes. However, when it ordered to end such programs it draws huge backlash of government and showed its inefficiency to decide a couple of things. This has raised serious questions on the government plan to make education technology-friendly.
The “School Re-operation Action Plan-2077”, has given the power to the local authority to decide whether to open schools in the levels or not. In view of Educationist Dr Vidyanath Koirala, areas vulnerable and less-vulnerable to the Covid-19 has to be identified first and schools remaining in the second category could be opened after going through Covid-19 test of teachers. However, their stills remain the hegemony of the state government influence in the operation of schools and colleges in less infected areas.
For example, there are no active cases of Covid-19 in Jumla so, the local government plans to reopen the schools following proper guidelines and protocols but the state government did not give permission to reopen those schools rather suggest to rung their academic courses through online classes. But it seems to be challenging as Majority (2/3) of students doesn’t have any access to radio, TV, internet connection and modern digital devices. The mayor of Jumla, Mrs Kantika Sejuwal in a recent interview stress concerns over the remaining 2 and half months of the academic year in the upper Himalayan belt of the district where the academic year loss problem is inevitable.
The council of ministers meeting on Ashoj 1 have passed down an “Education Related Emergency Action Plan-2077”, that will ensure students proper education, evaluation, teacher-student relation-building, self-learning, alternative learning process with most of the priority given to e-learning. It also has made arrangements to provide free internet to students and schools from Ashoj, 2077 to facilitate e-learning. Students, schools and teachers can access free internet service by filling a simple KYC form and can attend classes on Google meet, Zoom and Ms-team for free. A large section of students who have to purchase data packages to attend their classes has been relieved of the problems of internet facility. This plan of the action plan has raised concerns that schools and university new normal will be a long time soon.
However, there are still problems which the government need to act properly to reduce all those barriers that are prevalent in this sector. As countries began to see a “flattening of the curve” of new cases of COVID-19 among their population, many governments began to loosen restrictions in an effort to stabilize their economies, including through the reopening of schools, while others have been more cautious and maintained closures, fearing a “second wave”.some countries have opened schools and colleges, only to close them again after a resurgence of the virus. As of today, roughly 40 UK Universities have reported COVID-19 Cases, with thousands of students self-isolating. The logistical challenges related to ensuring distance educational continuity during prolonged closures are substantial. Protracted closures threaten the implementation of the academic calendar and of examinations, and. Make it next-to-impossible to put remedial programmes in place. Assessing distance learning further complicated the picture, as noted above. Finally, there are risks to the well-being and protection of students and there is a need to address the well-being and health concerns of teachers, and to provide them with remote support, including through teacher training on online pedagogy. Successive closures and reopening are likely to continue, as the virus continues to circulate globally. Several countries are planning to implement a “hybrid” or blended model of education provision.
The shock of the COVID-19 crisis on education has been unprecedented. It has set the clock back on the attainment of educational goals and disproportionately affected the poorer and most vulnerable. And yet, the education community has proved resilient, laying the groundwork for the rebound. There remains a risk of a downward spiral, in a negative feedback loop of learning loss and exclusion. Yet every negative spiral of aggravating socioeconomic circumstances suggests its reverse image of a positive spiral, one which would lead to the future of education we want: one of inclusive change in education delivery system i.e. E-learning. Observing the present scenario, the practice of E-learning would be the best option to mitigate some impacts on the educational sector caused by this pandemic.
Thus, it is the responsibility of governments to stay true to principles and conduct reforms, so that, not only will the children and youth regain their promised future, but all education stakeholders find their role in making it happen.
(Paudel is an undergraduate student of Public Health currently studying in the third year at Cist college, New Baneshwor Kathmandu)