Recently, there was a rare day of unexpected joy during my 10-year-old class on Zoom. Some malicious hackers hacked the program and posted funny cartoons and videos in the middle of the flag. Classes are suspended for the day as teachers scramble to find out what happened. The children, who had sucked every little bit of joy out of their lives for the past two years, were laughing with glee at this unusual break.
For several weeks now, if not months, life has returned to what one might dare call “normal”. Even with Omicron’s new restrictions, restaurants are allowed to operate at 50 percent. When social activity is allowed, weddings of up to 200 are allowed, airports are bustling, and we desperately need some clarity on one crucial issue: Will Delhi schools ever reopen?
Once again, the Omicron variant threatens to keep crores of Indian children confined to their homes for the third year in a row. Everyone agrees that in the midst of new crises, survival comes first, and everything else is a luxury. However, we have come to a point in this epidemic where the risks of restarting in-person classrooms are well worth it, considering the alternative: a huge, misanthropic and unfit generation, left behind in many ways, doomed to struggle with challenging academic concepts. That got lost in translation by distance learning. Alarmingly, parents across income groups began talking about year zero, realizing that it was impossible to expect a child to deal with calculus in grade 11 after a shaky base arithmetic in ninth and tenth. Equally important, parents and children
Burned through trapped together, to infinity.
One way to come to terms with the frustration of learning loss associated with the pandemic is to understand that what students have missed academically is what they have gained in life skills. For example, last year my daughter lost a grandparent to Covid, watched a soldier parent through her, led a solitary life, and terrorized her home for a terrifying month. Our real world problems are an excellent starting point for building resilience. The virtues of unremitting struggle, dug into every Indian student as a sure path to success, now seem like unreliable advice. Because the real challenge during Covid was the philosophical embrace of uncertainty. To accept, when there are greater powers, that much is beyond our control. Ultimately, the most valuable education is the one that provides training to adapt to whatever you throw into your life.
Our current educational system conspires to kill innovation, replacing superficial knowledge with exclamation, so that children can obey by taking exams every three months. Having said that, there is no substitute for the structure and discipline of a normal school day, where children can interact with their peers, play games, compete and learn their lessons. Affordable parents have the privilege of supplementing their children’s education, making sure that their children watch and read documentaries, and spend many hours in constructive ways. School closures are very unfair to the majority of India’s students – whose parents cannot handle them intellectually and lack the resources to pay tuition fees. If this continues for a longer period, there will be an unbridgeable knowledge gap between income groups. What Yuval Harari eerily describes as the rise of superior humans in his Homo Deus, who can afford bioengineering and artificial intelligence to improve their abilities, leaving 90% of the population behind.
The last couple of years we’ve felt like we’ve been stuck in the waiting room, and the wait is getting worse. Whether we realize it or not, there have been fundamental shifts in our views since 2020. The fears of those early days — the harmful effects of excessive screen time for children — now seem funny. My standards have dropped dramatically since then. It’s a bleak start to 2022. Reopening schools will be a challenge, but more can be done to live up to it.
The writer is the director, Hutkay Films