Paru was excited that she was going to be promoted to grade five after her final exams in March. Her parents had promised to get her a new school bag in her favourite maroon colour for her new class. But this year turned out to be different, her excitement faded with the school closure right before the results of grade four were published. On March 19, Nepal officially closed all educational institutions to help contain the spread of Covid-19. A nationwide lockdown followed four days later.
‘I miss going to school and playing with my friends. I will not be getting new books and a bag this year’, said the nine-year-old. Paru, along with her three siblings, lives with their grandparents and aunts in a village of Kailali district in the south-western part of the country. Her parents are daily wage labourers in India.
Following the lockdown in March, the pandemic has kept an estimated 8.2 million Nepali children away from their classrooms, threatening their progress in education. Even before the spread of the virus, Nepal was in the midst of a learning crisis as more than half of the country’s students were not proficient in reading. Now the pandemic may worsen education outcomes with increased dropout rates, and it might further affect the most vulnerable children, with children with disability being left behind from access to literacy.
Paru’s parents make around Rs15,000 per month and are the sole breadwinners for the family of 12 members. Paru’s family wanted to renovate the clay tile roof of their hut before the rainy season with their meagre savings. ‘We only have one room. When the roof leaks, we put a bucket to catch the rainwater so that children’s bags and clothes are safe’, said Paru’s aunt Bipan.
Paru and her friends in the neighbourhood received self-learning books from Conscious Society for Social Development. Children learn about utensils and their use in the kitchen, different types of diseases and their prevention, and the importance of keeping the environment clean and ways to do so. Ward member Raju Kumar Chaudhary of Tikapur Municipality said, ‘Children spent their time playing around without any safety measures during the initial months of the lockdown. They have nothing else to do. After receiving the self-learning books, children are busy reading, writing, and colouring. I hope this will also keep children motivated towards studies as we are not sure when the schools will reopen’.
World Vision International states that countries with lower learning outcomes and high drop-out rates, in general, are particularly vulnerable to the impact of school closures. The United Nations Development Programme has estimated that 86 percent of the children in the low human development countries are not receiving education due to the Covid-19 pandemic, compared to 20 percent of the children in the developed countries.
Nepal has placed education at the centre of its pandemic emergency response and has pursued remote and e-learning opportunities to offset school closures. With the aim of limiting the negative impact of the pandemic on the learning opportunities of children, Nepal Education Cluster agreed on two priorities—one, limiting the spread of Covid-19 through education facilities leading to school closures; and two, ensuring continuity of learning by preparing and pre-positioning alternative resources at home like the internet, radio, television and other channels.
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has developed a learning portal with digital contents like e-books, interactive videos and learning games, audio and classroom lessons. These contents are categorised grade-wise and are accessible to children with an internet connection. Access to the internet remains a challenge in Nepal.
‘I was worried if I would ever be able to go to school again, and even to read and write. I listen to a radio programme called Hamro Ghar Hamro Pathshala which has taught me to make notes of my daily routine and create a diary. I have also learnt to write stories after listening to this programme’, said Paru joyously.
Various radio programmes targeting children have been initiated as a collaborative effort of radio stations, the government and child-focused organisations. A survey conducted post-COVID-19 by Sharecast Initiative Nepal and the Community Information Network showed that radio remains one of the most effective means to disseminate information among rural as well as urban populations followed by television, social media and print media. Around 56 percent of the people listened to the radio for awareness messages.
The Community Information Network has been collaborating with various humanitarian organisations to produce programmes targeting people of different age groups. ‘During the initial days, we collaborated with various stakeholders to broadcast public service announcements. Although there were programmes directing Covid awareness messages to children, learning materials were not broadcast by any media outlet. The Community Information Network was the first to broadcast learning programmes in collaboration with World Vision International Nepal’, says Deepak Acharya, chief of the Community Information Network. The network broadcasts most of its programmes from more than 200 community radio stations across the country.
‘I have learned about the human body from the radio programme. I want to become a doctor when I grow up’, said Paru.
Covid-19 has tested the boundaries of Nepal’s education system. Although the pandemic also revealed how quickly the country could adapt to the challenge to ensure children continued with their education, those engaged in this sector realise that much remains to be done to improve children’s learning. Infrastructure, not just in terms of school building but technological advancement with accessible alternative education should be the focus of today’s development planning.
The article was first published in The Kathmandu Post on Thursday, 27 August 2020: https://kathmandupost.com/columns/2020/08/16/learning-during-covid-19