India’s Covid-19 disaster is forcing universities to rethink student welfare

As India’s Covid-19 crisis worsened in March, students were frightened at the prospect of even more distance learning and uneven support from staff.

Most had already realized that their own health, as well as that of those close to them, was threatened by a fierce strain of the virus.

The crisis has put a strain on higher education students in India, who number around 37.4 million.

Studying in the midst of grief

Three weeks ago, on a hot summer afternoon in Delhi, Tanisha (not her real name) scoured social media for leads to get remdesivir, an antiviral drug commonly prescribed for treat Covid-19.

Her grandmother was in the hospital with the disease, but her condition was deteriorating.

The hospital was out of stock. “I did my best, but I didn’t succeed,” Tanisha said. “By 5pm, we had lost her.”

As her family mourned, Tanisha’s first thought was the next deadline for her incomplete assignment, which was due within 36 hours.

She texted her university professor in Bengaluru, informing him of the death and asking for more time for the mission.

“I lost my grandmother, I don’t want to do anything. I don’t know if I will be able to submit my assignment on time, ”she wrote.

“I’m sorry. I don’t feel like doing anything either,” he replied, without a word on an extension.

Tanisha didn’t know what to think and told her that she would try to submit her assignment on time. A friend completed it for her.

Like most college students around the world, Tanisha, 20, has to juggle classes and exam preparation.

But in India, with the workload comes the knowledge that the pandemic is putting increased strain on the country’s crumbling healthcare system.

Unprepared universities

Seemingly oblivious to the increased pressure on students, some of their supervisors are adamant with assignment deadlines.

They are unconvinced that students won’t cheat on online exams and give them extra homework to grade them accurately.

As of Wednesday morning, India had reported 25,496,330 coronavirus infections, nearly half of those reported globally. In a 24-hour period in mid-May, 4,529 patients died from Covid-19.

Overwhelmed hospitals across the country have been unable to accommodate patients, more and more of whom need oxygen.

In the absence of good government, NGOs and volunteers, including students, have taken to social media for medical supplies. But despite this crisis, universities seem to be living in a bubble.

Lockdown anxiety

Research has found university lockdowns and closures due to the pandemic are hurting students’ mental health.

In one study, of 195 young people, 71 percent showed signs of anxiety or depression or excessive stress.

“Many of my loved ones receive Covid and I am in a constant existential crisis over how privileged I have to study when others are suffering,” said Sourish, a journalism student.

Undergraduate Nandini said, “I scroll endlessly, then take a nap due to exhaustion, procrastinating over all the important things to do.”

When classes went live last year, students emptied hostels and returned home with their families, so they lost access to vital resources like libraries.

For some, cramped homes, borrowed phones, spotty internet coverage, and household responsibilities have strained their sanity and affected their education.

Intermittent lockdowns and skyrocketing infection rates have created uncertainty about the future, and decision-making has been anything but swift, hampered by bureaucracy at central and state universities comprising dozens of colleges.

The students had to ask for a suspension of classes and an extension of the deadlines.

In such a scenario, it is the teachers’ responsibility to be sensitive to the needs of the students. Jyotsna Pathak, who teaches at a college at Delhi University, often takes time during online classes to chat with students to assess their mood.

“If someone is not able to complete a task on time, I ask them to submit whatever is possible and then submit a new one later.”

Some students take advantage of this leniency, she said, but the percentage is low.

A hand

But one university – the National Law University of Delhi – ranked second best law school in India, revised its approach to teaching after the second wave of Covid-19 hit the country in March.

The small institution, which has only 400 students, has an “autonomous” status, which gives it the freedom to design its own program,

He said the final exam would only include 40 percent of the curriculum instead of the usual 70 percent – the rest would be assessed as small chunks of homework.

Students were given three weeks off in April and May to reduce their screen time while working on homework. The deadlines have been extended for people with health problems.

Review committee moderator Anju Tyagi said that unlike large universities, there are fewer barriers to applying for permission to change, due to the university’s autonomous status.

But what NLU Delhi does, Ms Tyagi said, is not rocket science.

“We are constantly listening to the demands of the student committee,” Ms. Tyagi said. “We’re just humans.”


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About John McTaggart

John McTaggart

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