What do we do with Education

Patricia Mukhim

It is said that education is the escalator to opportunity but what happens when that escalator is broken. Covid has brought all of us to a state where we are groping for answers. The last thing that anyone should do is to play politics with Covid. This is the time for the government to open up its horizons and look for suggestions, not from the usual suspects and acolytes that get invited to every meeting, but by scouring the horizon to get people with experience and pragmatism to share their views.

We have just come to a point where possibilities of a second lockdown stare us in the face as Covid cases have escalated. Just imagine looking at another year of repetition, isolation and stress. The shock of a year ago is now threatening to repeat itself. And it’s not a happy thought; not especially for parents for whom 2020 has been a cancel year for their children’s education.  The pandemic threatens to take us back to those times when younger relatives would stay away for fear of being asymptomatic carriers. Social distancing as we all know has a very debilitating effect on everyone but especially the elderly and if this is repeated, I wonder how we can cope with the situation. In fact a year-plus of social distancing has changed our personalities forever.

We are, if I may venture to say, hopefully less selfish and more caring than we used to be. Research shows that most people become calmer, more accepting, more self-confident and socially sensitive as they mature. One hopes this is correct. But as members of a larger human family we cannot help but have nagging doubts about how the younger members in our families are coping. What are they not telling us about how they feel? And what are they actually going through? Adolescence is that time in life when the hormones are hyperactive; it’s also a period of heavy socializing. Adolescence is a testing ground for how many peer groups one can belong to. If an adolescent is not socializing; is an introvert, adults believe there’s something wrong and we try to draw the person out. But Covid puts everything on pause mode. We would be aware of young adults who in 2020 had a hellish time being forced into solitude at the very moment when their identities are most vividly forming.

Covid has made parents feel less stressful if the adolescents don’t get too many calls or don’t agonize too much about having to stay at home and missing out on the fun and games. In that sense families living in gated residential complexes are better able to cope because their kids have enough spaces in community playgrounds to meet their friends, since the effects of isolation can be worse than the disease itself. The whole of 2020 has been an accumulation of, “what could have been but never was,” – the joys we missed in not being able to celebrate birthdays and attend marriage ceremonies; but more so the funerals of close relatives and friends and the family gatherings that we took for granted. Thankfully there are as yet no trackers for moments of ups and downs; laughter and tears in 2020.

We humans need so much more to nourish ourselves with than the food we fill our bellies with. But 2020 found us without emotional nutrition hence emotionally drained and that manifested itself in bouts of loneliness. Am not sure yet if any research has been conducted on how people coped with and fared during those lockdowns beginning March 2020. Personally I know I have spent more time looking at the computer screen or scanning for news of hope for a cure or a vaccine. Now that the vaccine is here, we are told that even those who have had it are still prone to Covid, some suffering severe forms of the virus. Do we even understand this virus better today? Do any doctors know for sure what they are talking about? Aren’t they all second guessing? To see on the TV screen pictures of dead bodies waiting to be burnt is exasperating and conveys a message that the government has given up and will take no responsibility for the growing number of deaths, infections and the breakdown of the health system. How does it feel to be living in these times?

You realise the futility of investing your votes on politicians for they are found most wanting when a calamity like Covid strikes. You also realise that every issue is politicised instead of being solved. Then everything gets lost into the manhole of ugly politics while the public is left gasping for answers.

I have yet to see a pragmatic think tank created by the MDA government to handle crises such as the ones posed by Covid. There is an 85-member body created to celebrate 50 years of Meghalaya – a state that is going nowhere. But there is no serious brainstorming on how to tackle education; the forthcoming exams; how many students have dropped out since last year and what their fates would be and whether there are any recovery mechanisms or whether it is prudent to take hasty decisions on shutting down schools when the online classes are a dismal failure.

The youth are our biggest assets. If we cannot spare the time, the energy and other resources to take a hard look at education and if we are to leave everything to the government then believe me we are a lost cause. Those who have given their lives to the cause of education because they believe in it and its potential to change the destinies of youth and not because of the profits it rakes in, should actually put their heads together and give a blueprint for action to the government. Let there be no ego tussle between government and well-meaning educationists. That’s the last thing we need!

In the United States a research conducted says over three million children got no education in 2020. Nicholas Kristof in his article, ‘School Closures Have Failed America’s Children’ in the New York Times says he didn’t see the wisdom of opening bars while shutting down schools.  It’s instructive to know that even in states like Oregon in the US low-income children often don’t have internet to attend Zoom classes and some homes have neither internet nor cell-phone service. “The evidence on remote learning suggests that despite the best efforts of teachers it doesn’t work for a large share of kids,” said Emily Oster, a Brown University economist who has studied the issue. She says America has sadly deprioritized children in a way that will do long-term damage.

Talking about the risks of opening schools, Kristof says there’s enough data in the US and abroad comparing areas that reopened schools versus those that kept them closed. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found that in-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission. Adding to this, the British Medical Journal in an editorial said, “Closing schools is not evidence- based and harms children.”

A Tulane University study also found that in most of the United States, school openings do not increase coronavirus hospitalization. And teachers don’t seem at greater risk than people in other occupations.

It would be prudent therefore to take a call on school/college closure after due diligence and much thought on the issue rather than out of panic reaction because one or two kids tested Covid positive. Let’s remember that even Pandora’s box was opened at tipping point. Let’s hope that intellectual sanity defeats political short-term agenda. And last but not least, let’s remember what Joseph Nye said, “Education is that soft power we can gift our young people to take on the world.”

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