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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 26, New Delhi, June 13, 2020

Do the stars still twinkle today? Impact of online teaching on primary school students of rural India due to COVID-19 | Sengupta & Pal

Saturday 13 June 2020

by Atanu Sengupta, Asish Kumar Pal


Education is the pathway to be established in the society. For outbreak of coronavirus disease unprecedented prolonged lockdown is going on country wide. The government has decided to close all the educational institutions. At this hard situation many schools even primary schools have decided to continue education through online mode instead of face to face class room teaching. In the developing countries education is already a tough choice for most students who are from socio-economically backward classes. Most of them are basically first learners of generation in their family. It is a pertinent question how far online teaching has affected this situation. This paper aims to study of impact on online education system of children who are the students of primary school in our country.

Keyword: Education, Primary, School, Students, Children, online, digital, BPL, APL, Family 


With the growing fear of Covid -19, many facets of life and livelihoods have come to a standstill. Education sector is not exempted from this. The schools and colleges have remained closed in this situation. With sustained effort, India has been able to substantially lower the drop-outs and increased class attendance. It is feared that long absence of normal schooling might drive many of these children back into drop-outs and out of the enlightened circle of education. This may be coupled with the increase loss of livelihood and the spread of unemployment that hits poor man’s earning basket. SAHAS survey gives a poignant story of a boy once elated that school is closed is now forced into labour market. Numerous newspaper clippings give us story of meritorious boys and girls forced to move prematurely in the labour market. In one case, a polytechnic student has appealed for manual work under NREGA. However worse hit is the primary schooling that is the backbone of the nation. The level of educational attainment is feared to be going down to an abysmally low level.

Some Opinion about online system: 

According to UNESCO report more than 157 crore students across 191 countries severely impacted by closure of educational institutions due to coronavirus. Coming to India the report by UNESCO says that over 32 crore students hit by COVOD- 19 as school and colleges are shut.

A newspaper has reported about the disruptions on online teaching to poor school students in Delhi for Covid -19. The report says that many students do not have smartphones or laptops to attend online classes or get work on WhatsApp (April 22, Bedi).

World Bank (March 30, 2020), very recent has revealed data using ‘ learning poverty’ indicator that 53% of children in low and middle income countries are suffering from the previous situation of pandemic outbreak.

Students from remote districts and those belonging to poor communities are mostly affected negatively by online method ( Lakshman, April 09, 2020).

As the world is fighting against the COVID- 19 outbreak, more than 130 countries have now closed schools nationwide, impacting nearly 80% of students globally ( Source:

Given such a situation, in many countries, the government and education institutions are opting for digital learning. According to a recent report The Cambridge University has opted to go for digital classes. In India, the Central and State governments are opting for online classes. While some opine this as temporary measures, other hails that some sort of digital teaching may enhance the education system. We will try to assess the impact of online classes on the rural primary education system with reference to a village n West Bengal as our sample site. To start with, this is a mere illustrative study. There is nothing unique in the choice of site or its position. This village is only a representative on any typical village in India.

There is a question whether online education is appropriate for the primary education in rural India where there is a large number of the first generation learners in the society. Although in the age of smart phone nothing is impossible yet online education does not provide all possible solutions than class teaching method. It is an appropriate time to discuss the impact of unprecedented lockdown on e- learning method of education in the primary education system of an underdeveloped country like India.


A rapid survey is conducted of primary school students across the area of some selected villages to understand the impact of ongoing lockdown on the respondent students and the challenges faced by the students towards exploring alternative ways of learning. The survey is conducted in offline while the survey response is collected from 100 students who have responded through questionnaires method from the two categories of the families such as BPL (Below Poverty Level) and APL (Above Poverty Level) that are defined on official recordings. Our survey aims to understand the grass root level scenario that emanates from rural India.

Discussion based on data:

Let us now begin our assay with the data collected by us.

First, we proceed with the description of the sample. In the sample, families of primary school children who belong to BPL category are 40% while the remaining 60% are APL category. The sample structure is biased towards the poor.

Table 1: Sample structure of families of the primary students

Category of the family  No of sample size 
BPL 40
APL 60

From the table 2 we find the family size of the respondent students. 47.50 % BPL households hold 1-4 family members where 53.33% APL families is included this category. 17.50% BPL is under small sized family while 13.33% of the sample students of primary section are in the larger family group. This goes on with an old observation by Rudra (1992) that it is richer people who can support larger family.

Table 2: Average family size of the of the different categories of primary school children

Average family size BPL  APL
1-4 19 32
5-8 14 20
More than 8 07 08

Nest the educational status of the families of the children of primary schools (Table 3). Only 5% of BPL category households have a maximum education more than 10 classes at least matriculation while 53.33% APL have achieved higher degree which is above Secondary board examination. 42.50% members of BPL have attended the school of primary level and only 30% family have exceeded primary level of education. So the data in table 3 clear indicates great social divide among the primary children according to the availability of family education resources. While most of the APL primary students can fall back upon family help for study, this is precariously low among the BPL students. The latter are mostly first generation learners.

Table 3: Educational Status of the family of the children of primary school

Maximum schooling in family BPL  APL
Not registered in primary school  09 01
1-5 17 09
6-10 12 18
Above 10 02 32

From the table 4, only 20% of the BPL families have a separate room for study. Bedsides their rooms are so small which are not adequate environment for online mode of learning. Absence of separate and proper room is a major hindrance for home learning. Although this situation is far better of APL families (85%) who have special study room which is enough for useful of online education.

Table 4: Having separate and adequate room for online environment among the households of primary school students

Family type  Seperatete study room  Not separate study room 
BPL  08 32
APL  51 09

Further from the table5, it is evident that 26% BPL families stay in non-concrete (mud based) houses which are so small that these are not adequate environment for online mode of learning. Only 35% out of them stay in concrete brick build houses. Most these so called better houses are built under the PMAY scheme. As such, they are not in a systematic condition. Hence they are not ideal to digital platform of learning.

Table 5: Housing condition of the families of primary school students

Family type  Non Concrete Concrete
BPL  26 14
APL 13 47

It is evident from the table 6 at in our sample, 35% BPL are from agricultural family. The next big chunk is the government service (0%) while micro business account for 20% who are basically small street holders, hawkers and street vendors etc. And the other parts of BPL are engaged in unorganized sector which includes daily labour in the economy. But from APL families the comparative occupationally situation is a little better than BPL. From this point the realization is that the most of the primary students have no idea about digital learning method that is involved in the life of poor familiar students in this pandemic situation.

Table 6: Ancestral family occupation of the respondent students

Father’s occupation  BPL  APL 
Agriculture  14 24
Rural -non farm 12 03
Urban -non farm 03 04
Government service  00 12
Private  03 07
Business (micro) 08 10

It can be observed from table 7 that among the respondent BPL families only 30% belong to general caste and the rest to others- SC (37.50%), ST(7.50%), and minority including OBC- A & B (25%)- totalling 70% of all. In comparison, 60% of the APL families are of general caste. Thus it is evident that in our sample, most of the students belonging to the BPL families are from socially backward classes. Many studies reveal that social and economic backwardness coincides in India. This is so because social backwardness provides a great hindrance to build in human capital that is income augmenting. Hence it is very difficult for the primary school children under BPL category in the society to face online teaching method instead of class teaching method. Facing online teaching method requires special skills not easily forthcoming among economically and socially backward classes.

Table 7: Classification of caste among the respondents

Caste BPL  APL 
General  12 36
SC 15 09
ST 03 01
Minority  10 14

Next we consider the availability of infrastructure facilities for online classes- availability of smart phone, laptop or desktop. The picture is telling. Table 8 shows only 22.50% of the BPL households have smartphone while only 2.50% have either desktop or laptop. So it is not an ideal situation for the BPL students to attend online classes.

The students of APL families are slightly better. They have a much greater access to smartphone. The picture for possession of laptop/desktop is not very ideal even for them.

Table 8: Having smartphone among the households of primary school students

Category of family  Having smartphone  Not having smartphone 
BPL  09 31
APL 52 08

Table 9: Enjoy laptop and desktop facility

Category of family  Having laptop and desktop  Not having laptop and desktop 
BPL 01 39
APL 26 34

 This information of the families of our respondent primary school students in a Bengal village shows the inability of many rural students to avail the facilities of online teaching. This leads to create a social distance in learning education between poor and rich in the society as between rural and urban. Unfortunately, given the situation as of now, e-teaching is heavily biased towards rich and urban India. The ideals of egalitarian education facilities are lost with the same ugly Bharat versus India dichotomy creeping up again. It is noted by an eminent economist that e-teaching will melt down the last bastion of any symbol of equality.

Some subjective preferences of the students

Next we move to the crucial question-what the students feel about this system. Since learning is a subjective procedure this important question cannot be ignored. First, consider what the students missed most when schools are closed and when e-learning tries to reschedule it. What are the major items that the students feel they are missing in an on-line environment? 92.50%, 87.50% and 70% of the students belonging to the BPL family are missing the facilities of mid- day — meal, school environment and class teaching subsequently. This picture is not very different to the respondent primary school students belonging to the APL category. We are hearing the reverberations of Margie in Isaac Asimov’s classic story “The Fun they had”. Undoubtedly the picture is not as stifling and mechanical as to Margie. The students still have friends with they have scope to discuss, quarrel and chatter. The teacher is still a man (or woman) and not a machine. A man (woman) has emotion, can get angry, can cajole and can be persuaded. He/ She have a voice that is not mechanical and monotonous. Yet the prospects are frightening.

Also the deprivation from the mid-day- scheme that are not available due to lockdown for COVID- 19 pandemic may create health and nutrition problems among the students belonging to the BPL family. This can dangerously lower immunity power among the poor students that is most necessary for fighting against COVID- 19.

Table 10: Preference of items lost in on-line teaching among the primary school children

Preference  BPL  APL 
Mid day meal  37 45
Open school environment  35 51
Enjoying class teaching  28 47

The students of primary school are asked an interesting question regarding the negative impact on their education due to Covid -19 crisis. Sample data reveals that 82.50% of BPL and 66.66% of APL students feel that there is a high negative impact due to closure of regular schooling. On the other hand 5% of BPL students and 20% of APL students are feeling moderately affected. Again only 5% of BPL and 8.33 of APL feels are low impact. On the other hand, only 7.5% of BPL pupils and 5% of APL pupils feel no impact at all.

 Table 11: Negative Impact on their education due Covid 19 crisis

Impact  BPL APL
Affected highly  33 40
Moderate  02 12
Low 02 05
Not affected  03 03

In order to test their attitude towards the online study instead of class room study in the school, the students were asked about their preferences in this regard. Only 10% of the BPL students prefer education through online mode while this is as high as 45% for students under APL. Probably the BPL students are burdened with familial duties that have been in increase under continuous home stay. Moreover some of them may have to enter labour market to augment the falling incomes of their parents. For APL students this is a more joyful experience with lot of time to play and carry on pastimes leisurely activities. The social divide is again emanating. At school pupils are more equal. All attend the same class and lecture. At home the familial burden emerges for those belonging to poorer households.

Also 15% of BPL and 8.33% of APL have no idea about this system

Table 12: Response about online teaching among the students of primary school

Preference  BPL  APL
Yes 04 27
No 30 28
No idea  06 05

A neglected topic in school closure is the rise in familial pressures especially on girls. We had an interesting anecdote in local newspaper where a little girl has come to police station with his brother complaining of her mother’s overbearing on her. She wanted to live with her school madam who loves her dearly but not with her mother.

 Almost all the girl students of BPL families have a strong preference for school based learning rather than home based learning. Closing the school due to combat the spread of coronavirus has substantially increased their familial pressure. This scenario in case of APL girl students is far better because they spend the maximum time by enjoying television or using smartphone or playing computer game. The information regarding average duty hours which is shown in the table 13 (a) has increased than earlier when their schools were opened.

Table 13 (a): Daily hours spent on several domestic works of the family among the girls students (Average per day).

Girls belong to family   Duty hours during the opening of school (former) Duty hours during this time (closing of school)
BPL  03-05 05-07
APL  0-1/2 1/2 — 1

Contrary to the popular belief, boys are not spared. Though they are not generally involved in domestic duty, they are expected to cater to family business or help the parents in their income earning ventures. Many get involved in a number of farm and non-farm activities either within or even outside the family circle. We all know the story told by Leo Tolstoy of how the young son of an elephant driver (mahoot) was initiated to the task when his father was killed by an angry elephant. Again here, there is an APL-BPL divide (Table 13b). While the burden of BPL boys have increased significantly, it is not so for APL boys. In normal times they stay busy daily 02-03 hours with the father or any family member. In the covid situation they are forced to spend daily hours 03-05 hours in family earnings. They basically are engaged in street vendors, small shops, hawkers and some are in agricultural activities in the rural areas. Comparative situation is also seen in the same table which expresses the APL child students are in much better condition.

Table 13 (b): Daily hours spend on several income earning works to augment family income among the boys students (Average per day)

Boys belong to family   Duty hours during the opening of school (former) Duty hours during this time (closing of school)
BPL  02 -03 03-05
APL  0-1 1-2

However even though some of them prefer on-line schooling presently, they rarely take it as a long-run option. The intensity of school going interest is measured by the proportion of pupils willing to go to school after lockdown. For our sample, 87.50% BPL and 95% of the APL are willing to go to school when lockdown is over. Only an insignificant percentage are unwilling to go to school for attending the class teaching when lockdown is over.

Table 14: Response from the primary school students relating to intensity for going to school

Intensity to go to school  BPL  APL
Willingness  35 57
Unwillingness  05 03

 However, through informal chat with the respondents, we realized that the ignorance of online and other problems faced by both the parents and students will lead to a dropping out from education system. These notwithstanding that most of them have expressed the opinion about willingness to go to school when lockdown is over.

The Way Out: Social Networking

Commentators will readily ask a question. Given that e-learning is creating social divide and that Face-to-Face (FTF) is not feasible under this pandemic, what is the alternative. Will it then be prudent to stop the ray of education until normalcy returns? Since nobody knows when the so-called normalcy will return, this will be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. No sensible person can possibly support this. The problem with this is not in the way. It is the colonial mind-set as Ashis Nandi will call it. We are blind to the network of social web that exists in our countryside. We can dub it as neighbourhood learning.

In each neighbourhood there is ought to be some learned person, may be aged or retired who are idly passing their time. They could be housewives who have not used their acquired knowledge except for looking after their children. There are unemployed youth with some education. Many of them are already working as private tutor in the village. The government can easily use them with little training for this purpose. Such neighbourhood teachers will teach only a small group of children at a time. They can impart some knowledge that may have been flowing from trained teachers especially at the primary level.

Abhijit Banerjee has proposed training he so-called quack doctors so that they can cover areas uncharted by professional doctors in the remote countryside. While it might be debatable for physicians, it is almost non-controversial for primary teaching. In fact the state of Kerala is using one such technique where adult people are used to tell stories and give some moral education to the children at the village. Shamayita Math at Bankura is using this technique for imparting education to the backward villages at and around its central premise in Amarkanan. The first author has personally met a civil service officer who had immensely benefitted from the neighbourhood teaching of the Math. Being from a poor socially backward class, without this facility his dreams would have shattered to the ground. There is no reason why we cannot use it on a large enough scale. Many of the vagaries of e-learning can then be effectively removed.

To remove one misunderstanding, we are not stressing neighbourhood teachers would remove regular school teaching system. They are not like SSK and MSK. They are temporary measures only to combat an emergency situation. Further they can act as a node between formal teachers and their students helping and assisting the formal teaching process-not supplanting it. In fact this is the way, neighbourhood teaching is followed in Shamayita Math.


It can be concluded that the primary school children face so many problems by exploring the data about online education system in rural India. As educational institutes move online due to the prolonged lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic children from primary school level that are from socially and economically weaker section of the society are finding it hard to catch up. From this crisis they are worried about an immediate effect on children of primary school level such as losses of learning, increased dropout rates and missing their most important meal of the day which is provided by the government. This increased drop out can turn to the child labour in era of covid-19 particularly when their guardians are losing work or income.


Bedi, Amnesia, April 22, 2020, ‘ No gadgets, no studies: What online classes mean for 16 lakh poor students in Delhi schools’ , https//the

Choudhury,Richa, ( April,16, 2020), Covid-19 Pandemic: Impact and Strategies for education sector in India, https://government.

Lakshman, Remya, (April 09, 2020), “How is Covid-19 impacting online education”, https//

Rudra Ashok (1992) Indian Agriculture: Myths and Realities, K.P. Bagchi, Calcutta

UNESCO report Updated

World Bank data (March 30, 2020), published on ‘Education for Global , https//


Dr. Atanu Sengupta, Professor, Economics Department, Burdwan University, West Bengal, India email:sengupta_atanu[at]


Dr. Asish Kumar Pal, Assistant Professor, Economics Department, Tarakeswar Degree College, Tarakeswar, Hooghly, West Bengal, India e-mail:[at]

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