Thus far the Government of Tamil Nadu seems to have been consistent in its policy for educational institutions when it comes to the pandemic – keep them shut on an indefinite basis and classes if any to be conducted remotely. It is time that the powers that be seriously relook at this and come up with alternatives. Virtual classes are not solutions for every household across the State and in assuming that such facilities are available to everyone, the Government is deluding itself.

In 2020, when the pandemic first broke, the world at large was unsure of what it entailed. Lockdowns became the norm internationally and we too followed suit. Since then, there has sprung an increased realisation that life will have to go on irrespective of whether a pandemic is raging or not. Yes, certain adjustments will need to be made but the basic blocks of daily life cannot be kept in a permanent state of abeyance hoping that the virus will vanish – it is not going to. One of these fundamentals is educational infrastructure.

There may have been many reasons as to why schools and colleges are kept closed. The first is that these spaces may come in useful as camps or isolation precincts in case of a sharp rise in numbers. But to keep them shut in anticipation of such an increase, as and when it happens, is not a wise policy. The next is the fear that children, presently unvaccinated, may be the first victims to the virus. Scientific study thus far has not shown this to be the case and as recently as a couple of days ago, the World Bank’s Global Education Director has come down heavily on this – there is no evidence to show that re-opening of schools caused a surge in COVID cases he said, and he also emphasised that there was ‘no science’ behind waiting for all children to be vaccinated before considering physical classes. 

Most importantly, does the State really imagine that virtual classes are the ideal solution? If so, then why not dispense with educational institutions themselves and have everything online? Firstly, there are enormous imbalances in the very infrastructure of conducting classes. Leave alone the supply side of all schools being capable of handling such a demand, what about households? Are we to assume that every house has a certain number of smart gadgets that children have access to and so can attend classes without any difficulty? Such solutions are sadly meant only for the affluent. By and large, the bulk of TN households probably have one smart phone, in the possession of the head of the family. And can you imagine attending classes, day in and day out, with eyes glued on to the phone screen? There can be no greater torture than that. The net result will surely be that many children who are perhaps the first in their families to go to school, may just drop out of the practice. There have been many studies to show shifts in economic status in families post pandemic. A similar study if taken up on educational status may be revealing especially on statistics of school dropouts. 

Online education was and will always be an adjunct at most to physical classes. There are many intangible benefits to real lessons that can never be made good by distance learning tools. Perhaps the most important among these are social skills which are acquired by a process of osmosis as it were, by remaining for days, months and years with fellow students and teachers. There is also a disciplining process that stands students in good stead as they, post education, step out into the larger world. All of these can never be replaced by virtual classes. Above all, there is a freedom from the home environment for several hours a day, which brings its own benefits. Lastly, the onus of teaching everything virtually puts enormous burden on the teachers who are as it is in a profession that is among perhaps the most stressful in the world. 

Tamil Nadu has consistently scored on multiple fronts chiefly because of its success in education – the State is a high scorer when it comes to enrolment in lower and higher education. If that benefit is to be reaped consistently, we need to make sure physical classes are made available across the State. The virtual option can only be an exception, under extraordinary circumstances, for short periods of time. If not, we are going to see vast numbers emerging from the system as products of three years of a farcical online education process. Worse, many may just drop out of schooling. We need to get back to education, the old way.