Optimal Hybrid Schooling Strategies for Sustaining Skilling

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Mousumi K. Bhattacharjee (bhattacharjeemousumik@gmail.com) teaches at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Hyderabad.
9 October 2023

This article is on understanding what solutions may work for tackling the challenges faced by the Indian education system due to the pandemic or any disruption (like viral infection and climate change). The author suggests eight strategies to facilitate parents, teachers, school management, and the community to stay at home and school. Schools can develop an optimisation system to implement the strategy in an emergency or disruption. These strategies keep in mind the pupil–teacher ratio of 15 (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average), classroom size, sick or other leaves by any of the stakeholders, vacations, developing countries, remote access, high population density, first-dose adult vaccination of all family members of the pupil, and teachers, strictly follow sanitize, mask and social distancing (SMS) norms, fines or punishment imposed in relaxing of COVID-19 protocols, and willingness to adopt digital technologies. The strategies also work for those children who opt for vocational school training. Given that the pandemic is here to stay, the Indian school-level education system should consider adopting hybrid solutions. It is crucial to reduce the learning losses due to the pandemic and achieve the various National Education Policy, 2020 goals.

 

The different waves of the pandemic left the country in a bad shape, and there was anticipation of a monkeypox wave and a fourth BF.7 wave in India (Bhaduri 2021; Ghosh 2021; Jha, et al 2022; TNN 2022). Active load cases were rising in the country after five months of low presence (NDTV 2023). Opening schools anywhere was a tough job during the pandemic or disaster—a mystery that will gradually unfold in the upcoming years (Azim Premji University2021; Lau, et al 2020; Vogel and Couzin-Frankel 2020). Climatic disruptions like the recent flash floods in Delhi and its neighbouring hilly states, repeated cyclones in the east and west coast of India, heat waves in the eastern belt, and other climatic disruptions that forced the shutting down of schools are a curse to the education system, especially in terms of its impact on the learning outcomes.  Educational outcomes for children in the United States (US) are in a K-shaped recovery phase. However, school pass outs in the past three years will need more key 21st-century skills (Center On Reinventing Public Education 2022; Lake and Pillow 2022). To cut to the chase, vaccines were and are the silver bullet. Almost 60–70 percent of the Indian population has supposedly attained herd immunity due to mass coverage, but with a disclaimer.

As Agnes Quisumbing, IFPRI Washington DC tweeted, “Our school committee just voted to start with universal masking! (Big sigh of relief). Also very high vaccination rates among those eligible. >90% of school staff are vaxxed. >95% of 16-19 yo at least one dose, >77% of 12-15. Now they need to get shots in arms for <12! The school district will set up vaxx clinics for <12 once approved.”

 

Figure 1:  Going Back to School-cum-Vaccination Sites

 

Source: Reproduced from Rothman and Feinberg (2021).

 

Stories from the US, Australia, and other nations are disturbing regarding schools opening and shutting down (Rodell 2020; Honein, et al 2021; Muralidharan tweets; Taylor 2020, Willyard 2021; Figure 1). Classes twice a week were vehemently opposed (Takenaga and Wolfe 2020). Unfortunately, learning is nearing a rapid death in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Mali, Yemen, Libya in Africa, and Afghanistan and Pakistan in Asia (Paul 2021] We are still determining how the children will react physically and mentally once they get infected in different socio-economic and cultural settings (Idoiaga 2020; Singh, et al 2020; UNICEF 2020). Let alone children who lost their parents and earning family member due to the pandemic. But we must wait and watch how children react to getting infected (Cassandra 2021; Mordani 2021; Rawlings and Hillis 2021; Special Correspondent 2021). Online teaching was a new experience for teachers and students, especially in developing countries. There are rising cases globally of more children getting admitted during the pandemic and deaths (Bhaduri 2021; The New York Times 2021). We have substantial evidence of the impact of the pandemic on children. We have pre- and post-treatment evidence of how children perform in different education systems or processes in place. Irrespective of the learning outcomes, vocational training, and jobs in developed countries, every country needs help with maintaining stringency (Figure 2). Either due to poor masking and sanitation behaviour or the advent of new variants. Even though Asia had to maintain the highest levels of stringency, learning outcomes are way above African countries. Post-COVID-19, countries with decades of poor learning outcomes will plunge into a more significant learning crisis.

 

 

Figure 2: Learning and Skilling Outcomes versus Stringency Index

 

Source: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/employment-rate-with-tertiary-vs-vocational-education; https://covidtracker.bsg.ox.ac.uk/stringency-map

 

 

 

Global Oxford Stringency Index, as on August 31, 2021 (right panel). The Stringency Index is a composite measure based on nine response indicators including school closures, workplace closures, and travel bans, rescaled to a value from 0 to 100 (100 = strictest). If policies vary at the subnational level, the index is shown as the response level of the strictest sub-region.                   

 

 

COVID-19 mortality and other disease-related mortality are different. It is further how the human body reacts to it, the intense pain and suffering, and that sense of fear (Faust, et al 2020; Kemp, et al 2020; Meyer-Frießem, et al 2021; O’Mary 2020; Piroth, et al 2021). The fear that it immediately affects our respiratory tract and is less intensive for those vaccinated implies that we lose the confidence mentally to fight the disease (Arora, et al 2020; Coffin and Rubin 2021; Smith and Robinson 2021; Mertens, et al 2020; McBride 2021; NIMHANS no date; Rodríguez-Hidalgo, et al 2020). Children are too young to deal with such complexities and will constantly require their parents by their side. States in the US are still switching across mask mandates and other precautionary measures (Mervosh 2021; Spencer 2022). Unmasking can only be possible with a certain level of herd immunity (Greg Poland, Mayo Clinic podcasts). Given India’s high population density and narrowed and harrowing urban slums, it will be some time before children and adults continue masking even post-vaccination (Pandey 2020; Thacker 2022; Wasdani and Prasad 2020).

 

Parents are torn between their official commitments and monitoring their children at home. It is a human tendency for parents to constantly watch or care for their children, especially when in person. Adolescents may require their own space (Janssen, et al 2020; Moore, et al 2020). The enforced proximity may hamper their growth and skill development. It adds to the burden, and digital or hybrid solutions fail to ensure improved deliverables for the parents. Children need to be physically in school to work and play under the supervision of adults. in the case where adolescents need to learn technical skills , working in an unsupervised environment may be dangerous, and parents may not have the necessary skills to guide them.

Online resources in local languages were a boon for children in the Global South. For example, Kishore Batayan Konnect (http://konnect.edu.bd/), a Bangladeshi online initiative providing e-learning resources, was active before the pandemic. Life skills, assignments, e-books, recorded lectures, and question and answerssessions are some of the salient features of this online learning platform. Field experiments are ongoing to nudge children to use these online resources. Such behavioural interventions are the need of the hour for preparing children, parents, teachers, and all the stakeholders to sustain a healthy learning environment. Online resources can also tackle fatigue by teachers, students, and parents. Remote locations may not have a continuous electricity supply to rely on online resources. Solar charging facilities are popular in Bangladesh and can foster learning in a disruptive environment.

 

Equipment requires childproofing too. Sympathetic supervisors, part-time managers, , and job-sharing bosses share their “mobile working” experiences. (Volkswagen 2021). We must fight this as a community but not compromise our safety (Höppner 2021; Leonhardt 2020; OCPS 2020; Parenting Desk 2020). Digital solutions are a boon unless and until the willingness to adopt them by the different stakeholders is at the highest level. It can only sustain the Korean aspirations of children, parents, and teachers globally, and we can minimise the sacrifice each makes (Harlan 2012; Kim and Bang 2017).

 

 

  Figure 3: How School Policies and Medical Interventions Affect Spread of COVID-19?

 

Source: Incoming protection is through natural or vaccine acquired (Zhang, et al 2021)

The COVID-19 Trends and Impact Survey (Barkay, et al 2020; Reinhart and Tibshirani 2020) for India data reveal that masking in adults is 30 percent below the recommended norm of 100 percent (Bhattacharjee and Pramanik 2021). Children emulate their parents, a “monkey see, monkey do” approach identified by social psychologists (Kazdin and Rotella 2009; Namratha 2017; Stlefel 2005). Adult behaviour determines that of the young minds, which in a lockdown may be more impactful (Bhushan 2007; Maccoby 2000). Simulation-based models also find that relaxation in COVID-19 protocols without complete vaccination can lead to more than half a million infections in an average population setting. Low vaccine efficacy but higher coverage yields the best results (Patel, et al 2021). Hospitalisation and deaths due to COVID-19 are the quietest and not harrowing, but they are happening (Figure 3). Children are as restless as adults when following a strict routine. Julie Swann (2021) estimates that three-fourths of the children will fall sick in 107 days or a semester without testing and masking when 500 of them attend school (Figure 2). Open-air classrooms are an age-old concept but not feasible in all locations. The present situation requires better ventilation and fewer closed spaces, which is difficult in urban settings as the virus is transmitted through droplets and aerosols (Burridge, et al 2021; Zohdi 2021). The moot questions are: Are children ready enough to SMS for the duration they are in school? If not, schools should open in a very staggered manner? Elementary school children are ineligible to get vaccinated, and it is pretty tricky to “Welcome them back” (Natanson and George 2021).

 

 

 

Figure 3: Delta COVID-19 Hospitalisation and Deaths

 

 

Source: Leonhardt (2021).

 

There are certain strategies that can facilitate parents, teachers, school management, and the community to thrive. Schools can develop an optimisation system to implement the strategies in any emergency, disruption, school drop-outs, or early marriage. These strategies are proposed keeping in mind the pupil–teacher ratio of 15 (the OECD average for primary education; OECD 2019), classroom size, sick or other leaves by any of the stakeholders, vacations, developing countries, remote access, high-population density, first-dose adult vaccination of all family members of the pupil and teachers, strictly follow SMS norms, fines or punishment imposed in relaxing of COVID-19 protocols, and willingness to adopt digital technologies.

 

  1. x pupil, y class teacher, spend half-day, alternate in-person and online meeting every z days (x, y, and z are the number of individuals depending on the period of disruption and school semester and mutually decided by the parents, teachers, and staff; constrained by the available human and other resources).
  2. x pupil, y subject teacher, spend half-day, alternate in-person and online meeting every z days.
  3. Group meeting, physical exercise/arts and crafts/music classes every z days.
  4. Avoid traffic, rush hours, or other travel-related disruptions like flash floods, heat waves, etc.
  5. Parents can juggle office and childcare time. This can also work for migrant workers who travel seasonally. Their children can avail of mobile schooling facilities by accessing recorded materials. Recorded notes retain the human touch in the language of preference, and parents and children can access the same. A mix of offline and online modes can be comforting (by using surgical masks; Shekaraiah and Suresh 2021) and a better focus on teaching.
  6. Students can avoid travel-related exertions, COVID-19-related hassles, and focus on studies and other online classes on language, music, or private tuition for academic purposes. All of these now operate in hybrid mode.
  7. Usage of technology generates more jobs; digital and offline modes are complements; Usage of portable digital solutions that are low-cost, easy to navigate, and can function in disaster.
  8. Socio-emotional skills are maintained due to constant interaction with students; sustained progress on the attainment of other skills like creativity, collaboration, and flexibility.
  9. Assessment should focus more on bi-weekly or monthly student performance through multiple modes and means rather than strict in-person presence during disruption. Female menstruation issues and the subsequent impact on attendance, attention in class, academic performance, sports, or extra-curricular activities require greater attention.

 

Suppose children and adults all fall prey to delta, mu, or deltacron variants or say the adenovirus, the system will be in complete chaos! To sum up, we should follow strict norms even with 100 percent vaccination for some time now. Only then can we continue learning and remain healthy and pursue 21st-century skills. Given the hybrid and remote systems now, we need to conceptualise improvised OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) and the World Bank’s Skills Towards Employability and Productivity-like surveys to capture the online aspect of learning and the subsequent impact on learning loss, skills acquisition, matching, and labour market outcomes. Given India’s multicultural systems in place, it would require substantial evidence to devise multi-modal sampling strategies to conclude with substantive policy implications.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Listen to this article
Mousumi K. Bhattacharjee (bhattacharjeemousumik@gmail.com) teaches at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Hyderabad.
9 October 2023