COVID 19 has been a tough time for everyone across the globe. All walks of life have been disturbed. All over India, schools have been closed since March 2020. While on one hand, health systems have been strained, the effects of COVID have impacted education, jobs and general well-being of people. This impact is going to sustain and continue in 2021.

In an article published by M. Choudhary, P. R. Sodani and S. Das, they share their predictions about the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on the Indian Economy. One of the key areas that will be heavily impacted is education and at Pratham, this realization came in early and was strongly felt. Immediately, as the nation-wide lockdown was announced in March, i) reaching out to the communities, ii) ensuring the safety of the staff and the children and iii) contextualizing the programs for keeping the connection with the children intact were the three pillars of the approach Pratham took. A number of activities were started just after the lockdown, such as sending educational activities through SMS, WhatsApp, TV and Radio. As a whole, Pratham was able to establish contact with 11,000 communities.

In Pratham’s Digital learning vertical, there was a lot of buzz and activity. Interventions were put in place and amidst the chaos of school closures, economic distress, health concerns and anxiety, a solace-driven open school was established within a child’s home in the PraDigi Open Learning program. This school was called an Aanganshala: a school in one’s own courtyard!

Aangan means a place in the house where generally people sit, relax and do different activities. Shala means a place where children sit together and study - a school. As a part of the Aaganshala initiative, a group of children who generally are from the same family or neighbourhood come and sit together in the Aangan of one of the houses in front of their parents, at a decided time and study together. As a part of the intervention, children received SMS/WhatsApp messages related to Math, English and Fine Arts. Our coaches (youth volunteers in the community), would help children wherever needed and also track the progress of the children. These coaches are in constant touch with Pratham team members to share the progress of the learners.

This initiative was established in 890 villages of the PraDigi Open Learning Program in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Initially, the purpose was to maintain contact with children and engage them in different activities so that the lockdown did not affect them adversely. However, as time passed, it gave us other joys too!

The fun, the moments of achievement and the learnings have been multifold. One of the most common things reported by the children and the coaches as an outcome of the Aanganshala program is the ‘sense of normalcy’ that they feel. While the schools were closed, Aanganshala ensured that positive engagements and constructive communication among children continued and kept them involved in doing something together. Moreover, while the digital program has been functional since 2017 at scale; these testing COVID times have elevated our relationship with the community to a much stronger level. The ownership from the young coaches, the proactive nature of the parents and the involvement of the students continues to amaze us each day. Many parents from Maharashtra and Rajasthan also shared a need for initiating similar mechanisms for younger children.

So far, around 6000 Aanganshalas are being implemented, covering around 30,000 children of grade 5th to 8th. More than 4000 coaches are supporting the Aanganshala in their respective villages. As we look at the data collected from assessments now, we are unravelling new information that is leaving us surprised and motivated.

Initial data trends indicate that not only has the Aanganshala kept children involved but also led to learning progress. When compared with data collected at the beginning of the intervention, about 20% of children have progressed from the beginner level to the second and third level in English now. Similar progress has also been observed for Maths. This data encourages us to do more andalso validates our intent. Knowing that progress can happen with community participation, simple messages and the motivation on the children - keeps us at it. A number of suggestions by experts today speak about ‘keeping learningintact, at the centre’ of the interventions designed in the remote mode.Recommendations by UNICEF also share the same thoughts for the way forward.

Adapting to the changes that the pandemic brought has been an immense learning experience for us, and running Aanganshala has taught us so much more about remote interventions. Here are some crucial elements:

        1.   Content: The content is sent to the children must be regular, relevant, and engaging. Along with resources and activities related to English and Math, we sent videos on COVID, precautions, and more.

        2.   Social structure and Digital infrastructure: To ensure that the messages would actually reach the children, we connected with the parents or guardians and checked whether their phones could be used as learning devices. It was important to involve them in the initiative, so they could support the children wherever needed.

        3.   Feedback, follow-up and support: The coaches were closely connected with and supporting the children, and the Pratham team spoke to both, the children and coaches frequently, to gather feedback. Building this large network that connected with the children regularly was extremely effective in maintaining the relevance of the initiative.

        4.   Assessment: In addition to the engagement created by the activities, timely assessments acted as a reflection for helping us keep the intervention aligned to learning outcomes as well.

The Aanganshala has been designed with the aim of taking education to the children, even if they can’t go to school, so that they don’t miss out. This continued learning would help bridge the gap if/when schools resume. On the whole, the Aanganshala initiative makes us hopeful that learning will strengthen and continue, and positive engagements will help all of us swim through these tough COVID Times.