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Children take the hit as education goes for a toss amid pandemic

Express News Service

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,” said William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), the famous Irish poet and one of the leading lights of 20th century literature. But the adverse impact of Covid-19 and resulting chaos in school education — starting with the issue of whether to hold classes online or offline — indicates that the efforts of the state government to consciously keep education on track is just about filling the pail, and dousing whatever little fire is lit.

If anything, it has deeply impacted character development of children, many of whom endure lack of access to technology to sustain online classes.

Online education has deprived children of open spaces to run, explore, encounter, interact socially, wonder, and raise questions — the holistic exercise of mind and body. The pandemic has resulted in the closure of educational institutions across Karnataka. D Shashi Kumar, president, Associated Managements of Primary and Secondary Schools in Karnataka, says over 18,000 schools are suffering from financial constraints to pay salaries of teachers and over 10,000 nursery schools affected due to lack of admissions.

According to the Annual Status of Education Report, 68.1 per cent students in the age group of 7-16 are in government schools and 25.3 per cent in private schools, while 6.4% do not attend school at all.
Education is being tossed around with strong currents of pros and cons of online/offline education. The children are at the receiving end of it. Education Minister S Suresh Kumar’s statement that online classes “might affect the students’ mental wellbeing” was in line with a report by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), which stated that virtual classes are not ideal for students below the age of six and recommended screen times for various age groups.

According to education department sources, online education has reached only 40 per cent of students living in rural areas and marginally more in urban areas. The economic slowdown and lockdowns have badly affected children from poor and lower-middle-class families in several North Karnataka districts. While boys are being sent to work as labourers in farms, hotels and other fields, minor girls are being married off. Child rights have gone straight out of the window.

Udupi district has emerged as a major region where children are being forced into labour at the Malpe fisheries harbour. As most sectors are yet to open fully after lifting of lockdown restrictions, migrant labourers who have arrived in Udupi from places like Ballari, Koppal, Vijayapura, among other places, find it difficult to make the ends meet. Parents working as labourers at the harbour take their kids with them to work to enhance their income, depriving children of their childhood.

Prabhath M Kalkura, a child rights activist from Udupi, said more kids working as labourers at the Malpe fisheries harbour this year is the direct impact of the pandemic. In the pre-pandemic stage, ‘Chinnara Angala’, ‘Baa Marali Shaalege’ (Come Back to School), Cooliyinda Shaalege (From labour to school), all such enrollment campaigns helped bring lakhs of children back to schools. But the pandemic has halted the momentum of these programmes, he noted.

Recently, a 9th standard boy came to Hubballi from a village to sell festoons during Dasara to earn money to buy books for his studies. There are several such instances of children selling pens and masks on roads of Mysuru to support their families that are in financial distress due to the pandemic. 
Several child marriages have taken place in rural areas, though many have been stopped by officials. In Ballari district alone, 231 child marriages were stopped by the authorities in the last seven months.

In Gadag, 23 such marriages were stopped. But in all these cases, the helplessness of parents to earn sustenance for their families emerged as the common reason for forcing their minor daughters into marriage, sacrificing education. Vasudev Sharma, a child rights activist, said continued closure of schools has affected the lives of children. If schools were open, the number of child marriages, labour and abuse of children would have come down.

According to Mysuru District Child Protection Officer Divakar, during the lockdown (March to May), the district reported 55 child marriages, of which 42 were prevented. Most of them were in rural areas with parents exploiting the lockdown to solemnise marriages of minors, away from the public glare.
Though the numbers have come down after the unlock, there are still several instances of child marriages reported from the rural belt of Mysuru. Recently, an alert from TNSE to officials thwarted a child marriage at HD Kote taluk.

Experts also point out that online classes divide children into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, deeply impacting the children’s psyche, in turn, potentially orienting them towards crime. Many from underprivileged sections have bought new tabs, mobile phones, laptops for their children’s online classes by taking loans, threatening to put them into a vicious debt cycle. Vidya Dinakar, a Mangaluru-based social activist, says, “Some migrant worker parents who have come back looking for jobs are seeking financial assistance to pay school fees too.” She adds that financial issues have led to the rise in child labour in the district.

Even children pursuing sports are affected. Rural children who were getting ready for different athletic events and hockey at sports hostels run by the department of sports and youth affairs in Shivamogga suffered from a lack of balanced diet, regular training and specific skill training. Manjunatha Swamy, Assistant director of the department, says, “About 90 percent of these students live in rural areas where they don’t have proper facilities, including grounds to practise regularly. Here, they undergo physical fitness and skill training, and they are nurtured with a proper balanced diet. But now, they are deprived of all training and proper food, which are essential for a sportsperson to develop.”

Inputs from Pearl Maria D’Souza & Preeja Prasad/Bengaluru, Prakash Samaga/Udupi, Divya Cutinho/Mangaluru, Ramachandra Gunari/Shivamogga, Arunkumar Huralimath/Hubballi, Karthik KK/Mysuru

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