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Overt emphasis on online teaching depriving marginalized children: RTE Forum

Counterview Desk
The Right to Education (RTE) Forum, India’s top education rights network, in a memorandum to the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Human Resource Development, seeking to protect the rights of children during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, has called for “immediate actions to stop the increase in dropout rate of school children, child labour and child trafficking."
More than 100 signatories to the memorandum – including educationists, academia, social activists, teachers’ unions, civil society organizations (CSOs) – says that “extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary measures, and every measure should be in accordance with the values and provisions of the Constitution of India. These measures must have a humane approach and provide a level playing field for all.”
Especially taking exception to “too much focus on online modes of teaching”, the memorandum says, in such a situation, “majority of children, especially from marginalized communities, will be deprived of their right to education”, suggesting the use of “offline modes to reach children by maintaining physical distance.”
It adds, “Once the situation normalizes all enrolled students must be tracked, especially girls, to ensure no one drops out.”

Text:

Firstly, on behalf of the Right to Education Forum (RTE Forum), a national level advocacy network working for the universalization of education, we would like to acknowledge the efforts of the Government of India to address the spread of and control the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is a very challenging period for the country and everyone, especially the elderly, street dwellers, informal sector workers and the poor who have lost their livelihood in the wake of the lockdown. The children become particularly vulnerable as their parents are deprived of income. What is of utmost importance is their safety and security with adequate food, protection, emotional support and shelter.
At the same time, there are also long-term consequences as a result of the loss of access to education. The children coming from marginalized and disadvantaged section, including children with disabilities, have been hit particularly harshly because of the lockdown. Extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary measures, and every measure should be in accordance with the values and provisions of the Constitution of India. These measures must have a humane approach and provide a level playing field for all.
We would urge the government to take the following steps so that children enjoy their rights to survival, protection, education and development during and after the COVID-19 pandemic without any discrimination based on religion, gender, class and caste:

Ensure the right to health and nutrition for all children

1. To safeguard food security of India’s children, ensure smooth implementation of the notification for home delivery of mid-day meals and the Supreme Court’s suo moto order for providing nutritional food for children and lactating mothers through the Anganwadi centres for children on an urgent basis. 
The mid-day meal can include either dry food or cooked meals. Provisions must be made for the safety (including protective equipment and hazard pay) of all Anganwadi and ASHA workers and personnel supplying mid-day meals. Provisions for public transportation to reach the delivery points/households regularly must be made. 
The government should enforce orders for ensuring uninterrupted supply of food to students residing in residential schools and hostels. For this purpose, the RTE Forum urges the Government of India to distribute food to all children as part of Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and Mid-Day Meal (MDM)programme till risk of the pandemic is over. Free ration should be made available to every person in need, and supply should not be denied due to the absence of ration cards.
2. Take steps to ensure the health and welfare of India’s poor, which would benefit their children. Rapid testing for Covid-19 should be ramped up and made free in both Government and private hospitals for everyone. 
While the enhanced pension and fund transfers under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana are welcome, the amount should be increased in line with the prevailing minimum wage and made unconditional to not restrict access to services due to absence of necessary documents. Further, there is an urgent need to monitor the delivery of the relief materials at the village unit level.
3. In coordination with the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD), the government should ensure uninterrupted monitoring of health services, especially for the malnourished children, to prevent adverse health conditions during this period. All adolescent girls should continue receiving sanitary napkins, IFA and supplementary nutrition under SABLA and RKSK or the ICDS scheme or School Health Program. 
Immediate admission of migrants' children should be established with nearest schools to enable access nutrition, other entitlements
In coordination with the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Social justice and Empowerment, the government must ensure that children with chronic health conditions or those requiring medication including long term medication are supported as are the therapy and other rehabilitation needs of children with disabilities.
4. Immediate admission/linkage of children of the migrant workers should be established with the nearest schools to enable them to access nutrition and other entitlements. The government should also establish a village-based mechanism to maintain data of migrant families and children in the age group of 3-18 years, who would need to be enrolled in Anganwadis and schools post lockdown.

To ensure right to protection

1. Steps should be taken for child protection, including identification of children at risk of violence and abuse during the lockdown. Helplines and other child protection measures should be declared essential services and kept open. Child protection committees at district and block levels should be activated to monitor child protection.
2. Safety of children in shelter homes and on the migration routes is essential. Members of Village Level Child Protection Committee must be tasked for tracking children at risk, especially girls who are vulnerable to early marriage or trafficking. The Committee should conduct door to door roll call while maintaining physical distance to ensure that children at risk, especially girls, are present in their homes to prevent trafficking. 
Childline or Police or the local Child Welfare Committee should be informed when risks are identified. The staff of these entities would need to be declared essential workers and provided with necessary protective equipment to play this role.
3. There must be greater vigilance and stringent action against the violators of child labour laws. We demand sensitive and empathetic support to affected children. Child labour is a gross violation of children’s rights, and the implementation of the law against child labour is of utmost priority in the current situation.
4. The government must ensure the training of public health workers and other volunteers and equipping them with adequate Personnel Protection Equipment (PPE). Social security measures for them are extremely critical at this hour.
5. The Department of Women and Child Development should issue an advisory to all ICPS as per the Supreme Court directions dated 3rd April 2020. (https://www.livelaw.in/top-stories/consider-releasing-children-from-observation-homes-on-interim-bail-amid-covid-19-sc-154751).
6. The government must ensure that schools are equipped with safe drinking water and adequate hygiene facilities. After school resumes, sitting arrangements should also be made in a manner that physical distance could be maintained along with regular sanitization of the school and its neighbouring premises. 
School-based protocols to identify, track, manage and support the child should be prepared, and adequate orientation of headteachers should be ensured. It should be ensured that the schools used for quarantine, are disinfected properly before they are reopened.

To ensure right to education

1. Additionally, it is essential to provide for educational support to all children so that children continue to learn and build resilience to cope with the current situation. This will also address the risks of children falling prey to child labour, trafficking, child marriage and large-scale drop-out from school. 
Online programmes are not accessible to the majority of children in the country. Therefore the use of free offline communication media (including Radio and Doordarshan) to broadcast /telecast innovative programmes should be implemented widely. Doordarshan should, in collaboration with NCERT/CBSE, telecast effective programs to help children understand different concepts grade-wise as a substitute for the online syllabus-based teaching. 
Any other technological solutions need to be designed carefully taking into account the existing differential access to technology across caste, income-levels, gender and communities so that it does not further exacerbate the prevailing inequalities in learning opportunities.
2. Offline programs should also focus on all children, including 3-6 years old. A task force for advising on TV Programmes should be constituted. Offline programs also have better reach to children.
3. Wherever possible, the children and parents within the vicinity of the neighbourhood school should be connected through WhatsApp groups comprising of SDMC/SMC members and parents. These WhatsApp groups can be used to keep in constant touch with parents (if teachers are not in the same locality) and children. 
These WhatsApp groups must be used only for matters relating to children's education and nothing else. Wherever necessary, the teachers can visit children to offer counselling or advise and ensure that the mental health of children is safeguarded. The same procedure needs to be followed in case of AWCs and Crèches. Educational materials could be provided along with relief and dry food packages by the Government.
4. The academic calendar should be revised immediately through every possible suitable arrangements and adjustment. Steps should also be taken to design and implement an accelerated learning curriculum focusing on foundational skills to recover lost instructional time when schools re-open. Simultaneously, reducing the syllabus load for all classes for 2020-21 and cancelling class examinations is urged.
5. Schools must be instructed to track all enrolled children, especially girls, once normalcy returns to ensure that no child drops out.
6. Incentives, PPEs and insurance should be provided to the teachers as they are being encouraged to visit home and make home delivery (textbooks, other educational materials) and hence are at risk. It is essential to look at equipping teachers with the necessary skills so that they are able to provide online/offline support to children during and post-pandemic.
7. Under the provisions of Section 10(2)(1) of the Disaster Management Act, an order must be issued to place a moratorium on private schools hiking or collecting any fees until normalcy is restored.
8. The government must ensure that all eligible children receive scholarships at the earliest and special incentives are given to girls to enable completion of their education.
9. In the long run, the Government needs to recognize the critical role that the public sector has played in the implementation of govt’s directives to curb the pandemic and increase investments in strengthening the public health and education systems.
We would also like to mention here, the proactive and critical role the Civil Society is playing in providing humanitarian relief and assistance to the people in need, particularly the marginalized communities. NITI Aayog has also appealed to NGOs to assist the Government in tiding over this situation. The Civil Society has extended collaboration and support in all possible ways to the Government in reaching out to the unreached at this hour of crisis.
Sir, it is our earnest request to you to strengthen this collaboration and partnership with the Civil Society and implement our suggestions so that people on the margins can access the support provided by the Government without any obstruction or hassle.
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Click here for signatories

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