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On March 27th, a $2 trillion economic stimulus package was passed in the US in response to COVID-19. In India, the stimulus package amounts to $22.5 billion, a mere 1% of the US package, for a country of 1.3 billion, four times the population of the US. Specifically, $31 billion of the US package has been allocated to the education stabilization fund, while no such provisions have been made for education in India.

Figures 1 & 2: Comparison of economic / education stimulus package between United States and India; AND per-capita distribution of economic stimulus

These numbers are now etched in my memory as reminders of the disparities between my country and my current residence as a graduate student at Harvard Graduate School of Education. These same numbers highlight the necessity of recognizing the global (and regional) disparities while searching for, or rather creating a silver lining of educational transformation through this pandemic.

Within the US, school districts responded varyingly to the pandemic, but most districts swiftly created mandates to provide remote learning to their students and actively addressed issues of inequity. While these inequity issues compelled some districts to disallow teachers to teach remotely, in several regions, devices and internet access are being provided to students. Many individuals and private foundations have also donated devices and there are several stories of students attending classes in parking lots, outside McDonald’s and near public libraries.

In India, however, the situation is glaringly different. In response to COVID-19, schools have now been closed for almost 2 months, but it is only in the last few weeks that some state governments have issued directives for remote learning (ironically difficult to find on the internet). The National Capital Territory of Delhi (Delhi) has been the only state to issue grade-specific guidelines and provide cash transfer for internet access. Ministry of Human Resources and Development (MoHRD), the overarching government department on education in the country issued a press release on 21st March describing government run remote learning platforms and resource databases without accountability measures for schools or follow-up instructions. Since mid-April, MoHRD is broadcasting  two-and-a-half hours of educational content across age groups on television, a medium more suited for national response with broader reach and vernacular channels.

Currently, there are 300 million students in India who are out of school, 20% of the total 1.5 billion students affected by the pandemic. It is estimated that more than 80% of these students don’t have access to remote learning resources like laptops, tablets, computers, internet access and most importantly, educated mentors at home. While this is not surprising for a country where two-thirds live on less than $2 a day, and a quarter are illiterate, this is essential to understand the nature and scale of India’s educational challenge. The Indian government’s response (or the lack of it) directly affects 60% of the country’s students, the poorest and most marginalized. The rest 40% attend private schools of varying quality depending on their socio-economic status of the students. Student populations in schools across the country are largely homogenous across class; hence, inequities in resources span across clear divides of private and public, urban and rural, rich and poor. This intersectional situation means only the richest students attending urban private schools continue their learning during the pandemic, both exposing and exacerbating educational inequities.

Educational challenges in India during COVID-19 are further complexified by the socio-cultural and political factors. For example, most under-privileged students study in a vernacular languages, female teachers are responsible for all housework, and most children do not have a quiet space for studying. Students in several parts of the country had already lost school days this academic year due to pollution and civil unrest. Even families serviced by the private sector suffer as some schools have increased their fees amidst pandemic pushing several state governments to issue directives against such hikes. A few students from economically weaker sections enrolled in private schools through a government program have no way to match up to their peers. New challenges due to the pandemic are in the offing, including but not limited to an increased gender education gap as fewer girls return to school, huge demographic shifts due to migrant worker exodus from metropolitan areas changing student count and characteristics across rural and urban schools, more children at the risk of child labor due to financial hardships, and disruptions in higher education and job markets.

With 1.5 billion students out of school, HGSE (Harvard Graduate School of Education) has termed this pandemic as the greatest disruption in educational opportunity worldwide in a generation. World Bank reports that previous epidemics have shown low learning countries with high dropout rates suffer the most. While these must not surprise any educator, I highlight the case of India to emphasize contextualizing the conversation on educational response and transformation.

As a graduate student at a globally recognized school of education, I have been deeply perturbed by the lack of recognition of practical challenges students from emerging economies face. It is assumed that frameworks, tools, approaches used in developed countries can be easily customized for developing contexts. It is ignored how such moves promote a single story of educational improvement, often stifling local innovation.

The key point is that the silver lining of educational transformation does not exist in a vacuum. In fact, it resides within a cloud of existing socio-political, cultural, economic systems as well as local knowledge and community.

As a global community of educators, our biggest opportunity is to have honest conversations with acceptance of the diversity of reality and the reality of diversity, valuing experiential knowledge from across the world and supporting each other in creating answers to what can often be uncomfortable and even maybe, intractable questions. As the COVID-19 story unfolds, I find myself seeking educator co-conspirators to deliberate on these needs:

  • Increased accountability from the government
  • Improved government involvement and spending on education
  • Highlighting the role of parents in education; supporting first generation students
  • Rethinking achievement and assessments; expanding the scope of education
  • Highlighting multiple roles that schools fulfill, especially in marginalized communities
  • Increasing student autonomy, and project-based learning
  • Seeking equity in educational technology; improved last mile connectivity
  • Involving teachers in innovation and decision-making
  • Increasing effective global collaboration amongst educators and other stakeholders

If anything this crisis has highlighted the importance of confronting these challenges and not ignoring them till another crisis hits.

[Arushi Mittal is an Indian national currently pursuing a Master’s in education at Harvard Graduate School of Education with interests in feminist and decolonial education and can be contacted at]

Images designed by Punya Mishra