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A Math Problem: After 5 weeks of catch-up, some progress, some problems unsolved

In mid-March, weeks before schools reopened to full capacity across the Capital on April 1 after two years of a pandemic-induced shutdown, the report card on the desk of Neha Sharma, math teacher of Class 5A of the Delhi government’s Veer Savarkar Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya, was bleak: Of her 38 students, there were 16 who could not do subtraction and simple division – skills that are usually taught in Class 3 or earlier.

By the end of five weeks of her intensive catch-up session, there was some hope – all children except one could do two-digit subtraction and 18 children could dodivision with remainders. And a few setbacks: Harish, a child who hadn’t been able to identify single-digit sums, still couldn’t.

Between these two report cards lies a possible roadmap for the long and challenging journey of recovery for Class 5A. And key lessons for bridging the gap as children across the country returned to classrooms after a shutdown that exacerbated already existing learning deficiencies.

As The Indian Express tracks Class 5A and Neha ma’am after five weeks of sitting through each of their 26 math classes, during which the teacher focused on bridging the gaps, the class presents a mixed picture.

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What’s evident is that the progress of the class is not linear. For instance, Keerti, who could not do division with remainder, can now solve these sums on most occasions, though she sometimes loses her way. While she had sailed through her multiplication tables and remainder division sums in weeks 3 and 4, she faltered in the division assessment that Neha gave at the end of week 5. It’s the same for Salik.

Some children have made considerable progress – while Siddharth started Class 5 struggling to identify numbers, he opened up under Neha’s special attention, making slow but steady progress in classroom activities. He can now do simple division sums, even if haltingly. But then, there are seemingly insurmountable challenges too: Harish is where he was at the start – he still can’t identify single-digit numbers.

The Delhi government had decided that for three months, from April to June, classes for 3 to 9 would be devoted to foundational reading, writing and numeracy while setting aside the regular syllabus. However, the consensus that has been emerging is that the rebuilding efforts cannot stop here, that three months of bridge classes cannot address the deep disruption of two long years.

Shailendra Sharma, Principal Advisor to the Director of Education, while admitting the engagement with children over the last two years of the pandemic – through weekly worksheets and activities sent through WhatsApp – was no substitute for the classroom, says the need is not just to “ catch up”, but to “rebuild”.

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Saying the Delhi government hopes to continue with the recovery process beyond three months, Sharma said from July the attempt would be to address both ‘skill deficits’ and ‘concept deficits’. While the ‘skill deficit’ will continue to be addressed through Mission Buniyaad – the government’s foundational learning program for those behind grade level – the ‘concept deficit’ may involve a reduced syllabus.

(Names of children have been changed to protect their identities)

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