Corona Virus and access to education

COVID -19 pandemic has affected people and governments globally bringing out deep-rooted problems, especially in the medical and education sector. In a matter of weeks, COVID-19) has changed how students are educated around the world. Those changes give us a glimpse at how education could change for the better – and the worse – in the long term. With the COVID-19 spreading rapidly across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the United States, countries have taken swift and decisive actions to mitigate the development of a full-blown pandemic. According to UNESCO, most governments around the world have temporarily closed educational institutions in an attempt to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. These nationwide closures are impacting over 60% of the world’s student population. Several other countries have implemented localized closures impacting millions of additional learners. Out of 67.6% total enrolled learners, 1,184,126,508 learners are affected and 143 countrywide closures of educational institutions. (i)

Looking back at the previous health emergencies like Ebola outbreaks, the impact on education is likely to be most devastating in countries with already low learning outcomes, high dropout rates, and low resilience to shocks. While school closures seem to be a pragmatic solution for enforcing social distancing among the communities, but on the other hand, prolonged closures tend to have a negative impact on vulnerable students.  They have fewer opportunities for learning at home, and their time out of school may present economic burdens for parents who may face challenges finding prolonged childcare, or even adequate food in the absence of school meals. In addition to closing schools, countries are exploring options for remote learning and use of other educational resources to mitigate the loss of learning. This involves capitalizing on work already started and addressing ever-present challenges like degrees of accessibility within communities to ensure equity in access.

The structure of schooling and learning, including teaching and assessment methodologies, was the first to be affected by these closures. Only a handful of private schools could adopt online teaching methods. Their low-income private and government school counterparts, on the other hand, have completely shut down for not having access to e-learning solutions which brings out the digital divide embedded with gender and class divide. The 2017-18 National Sample Survey reported only 23.8 per cent of Indian households had internet access. In rural households (66 per cent of the population), only 14.9 per cent had access, and in urban households only 42 per cent had access. (ii) The students, in addition to the missed opportunities for learning, no longer have access to healthy meals during this time and are subject to economic and social stress. The pandemic has significantly disrupted the higher education sector as well, which is a critical determinant of a country’s economic future. A large number of Indian students second only to China enrol in universities abroad, especially in countries worst affected by the pandemic, the US, UK, Australia and China. Many such students have now been barred from leaving these countries. If the situation persists, in the long run, a decline in the demand for international higher education is expected.

The school education system portrays a dismal picture. There are many kinds of schools in the country: government, government-aided, private schools run by missionaries as well as those run by public and private trusts. There are also elite public schools and innumerable village level elementary schools under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan scheme, the latter catering to the below-poverty-level sections of society.  A majority of children (by number) attend village elementary and primary schools. Even in the urban areas, many such primary schools give classes to the poorer sections; most slum children attend these schools. In addition to the economic divide and the rural-urban divide, there is a language divide as well. Vernacular medium schools largely (though with exceptions) cater to the poor while English medium schools cater to other sections of the society. Here again, comes the aspect of the digital divide: most poor students do not have access to smartphones, and even if they do, the net connectivity is poor and content is often not available in vernacular languages. This gives rise to discrimination in access to education.

Today many schools in urban areas are having online classes, while the majority of rural schools do not. Very young children are not able to learn through online processes as they can neither handle computers nor mobile phones. In many households, there is no computer, and in many, children are not allowed smartphones as well. Both these problems exist regardless of class. Therefore, the digital divide at the school level leads to a gap between the haves and have-nots.

Examinations have either been postponed or cancelled. Cancelling intermediate semesters or class annual exams or Class XI board exams will only weaken the foundations of the students. While it is true that online examinations are not possible at this time given the existing infrastructure in the country, already cancelling the exams kills the impetus of learning. The authorities could have waited for the lockdown to end before announcing such a drastic decision.

India is a vast country with many complexities. The economic divide, the rural-urban divide and the resulting digital divide all have played an important role. The overall response of the country to the pandemic has thus been very mixed in the education sector


(i)    Education: From disruption to recovery. (2020).

(ii)  Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. (2018).  Annual Report 2017-18 Government of India. 142.

This article is authored by Mugdha Trivedi, a student of Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

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