Last year, during the peak of the Covid pandemic and the resultant lockdown, an autorickshaw driver in Kerala's Malappuram district started selling eggs as an alternative means of livelihood.
His son, a class 8 student, used to accompany him to assist him.
A few months later, the boy started selling eggs and vegetables on his own.
Down south in Alappuzha, another boy recently told his teacher, whom he met on the streets by chance, he was planning not to attempt his board exams this year as he is busy with his odd jobs, which he took up during the lockdown.
It is not sure if the boys attended their classes when schools in Kerala reopened on Monday, after remaining shut for more than a year and a half.
These cases of probable dropouts provide a peek into various issues triggered by the prolonged shutdown of schools and the forced alternative of online classes.
This is not something particular to Kerala. The fears of lockdown-induced dropouts are global. However, it is a crucial issue Kerala – which has a highly effective public education system compared to many other states – has to address immediately.
The other vital issue is the learning gap caused by the lack of physical school experience for such a long period.
Experts in the field of education, despite differences in their line of thinking and approaches, share a common view -- online classes can never substitute physical classrooms.
They also sought bridge courses to address the learning gap as well as deficits in the emotional and societal skills of students.
Amruth G Kumar, professor, department of education, Central University of Kerala, who was one of the first experts to identify the issues with the virtual classes, suggested psychologists and teachers should sit together and plan a course of action to address the gaps in the students' socio-emotional and educational deficit caused by lack of school experience.
He is of the view that the students of lower classes have suffered a lot in terms of intellectual and social skills, while those in the higher classes are facing a deficit in terms of intellectual and professional skills.
In terms of the process of learning, he said an organic, face-to-face interaction between teachers and students is a must for acquiring basic skills like addition and subtraction.
“If you make two pre-school students sit together, you would notice that they would engage in individual games, often imaginary ones. Kids start engaging in social/group games once they are in school. This is the beginning of their socialisation skills. Kids in this age group, who lost a precious year and a half in schools, have missed this crucial phase,” he said.
Elaborating on the social skills deficit, he said the gathering is a must for adolescent students as it plays a vital part in their social and psychological development, including sexual awareness.
He also raised concerns on the possibility of a high dropout rate after the online education period.
On October 19, the UNICEF published a report which estimated “four per cent of schoolchildren in Asia are at risk of dropping out of school due to the pandemic – reversing progress made in school enrolment in recent decades.”
Amruth Kumar said a significant number of students are likely to drop out as long as schools remain shut for various reasons.
“Teenagers, especially boys, who stay out of schools for long, are likely to find themselves in the world of the elders. Some of them would start working (as seen in the case of the boys mentioned at the beginning of this story), while some may start ill habits like smoking and drinking. All these would prompt them not to return to school once it reopens,” he said.
Ajay Kumar, a Dalit rights activist who runs RIGHTS, a non-profit organisation focussing on the education of Dalit and Adivasi communities, also shared similar views.
He said the continuity of learning – what the academics call a learning tree – was disrupted during the period of school closures. He also called for bridge courses – lessons to bridge the gaps in a student's knowledge which was to be acquired during normal classes – is a must now.
“Some students would be able to cope up with the new systems and make up for the losses on their own. Some parents may be able to afford private tuitions for their kids in subjects in which they need particular attention. But not all can do that,” he said.
He fears higher dropout rates in Adivasi belts and coastal regions.
“Classes have been conducted online, but learning has not happened. The government has to first conduct an assessment of online learning. But I don't think any government will do that because they know the results will be disastrous,” he said.
Kerala Sasthrasahithya Parishad, a Left-leaning association, had conducted an assessment of online classes in August 2020.
The main finding of the study, which surveyed 3,000 students, was that students were reportedly displaying a steep fall in their interest in studies via online methods.
V Vinod, who heads Parishad's sub-committee on education, said online classes would never be equivalent to classroom learning in the current circumstances.
He said evaluations during the online classes have proven that a large section of students has not been familiar with their textbooks.
“The so-called smart students or class toppers may not have suffered many academic losses during online classes. However, there is a huge section of students who scrape through the exams just because they had attended classes. Many in that section have been left out with the school closure. During exams, we have noted that many students have not been able to answer text book-specific questions which means they have not been familiar with the books,” Vinod, who teaches Malayalam at Government Higher Secondary School, Mankada, Malappuram, said.
The good news amid all these fears is that the Kerala government has mentioned the need to address the issue of the learning gap in its academic guidelines published ahead of the school reopening.
"Our new approach in learning should be one of helping the students progress with the new methods too even as we bring them back to school and bridge their learning gap," the document reads.
It also advises teachers to identify the learning gap through continuous evaluation and fix it.
"We have made teachers in each school competent to assess the learning gap in their students. Now, a centralised approach will not be possible because the learning gap is a very subjective issue. It could be addressed only at the local and decentralised level. That's why we have instructed schools to do an acclimatisation exercise for the students in the first 15 days before starting with lessons. Natural integration with the school system and identification of learning gap will also be done during this period," A P M Mohammed Hanish, principal secretary, the top bureaucrat in Kerala General Education Department, told Onmanorama.
No matter how prepared the system is, the gravity of the issues of the learning gap and the looming threat of a high dropout rate will be revealed only in the coming days, when classes will be in full swing.