How Does Covid-19 Affect You As A Student?

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 Amidst a highly competitive examination culture in many countries of the world, students spend several years preparing for the university entrance exam. But despite their focus on studying in order to achieve success, the outbreak of the Corona epidemic has changed the equation.

How Does Covid-19 Affect You As A Student?

On December 10, more than half a million students from across India attended a live interactive meeting with the Education Minister, broadcast simultaneously on Facebook and Twitter. The speech aimed to discuss students' concerns related to the upcoming university entrance exams, which are surrounded by much uncertainty due to the Corona pandemic.

Although the meeting was described as an interactive session, it was largely two parties talking separately without appearing to listen to each other. While the minister praised the education system in India for overcoming the challenges posed by the spread of the epidemic, comments from students continued about their struggle to adapt to the current situation and their demands to postpone the exams.

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These exams are very important, as their results determine the professional future of students. Campaigns calling for its postponement have been occupying social media sites almost since the first general lockdown in March due to the spread of the Corona epidemic led to the suspension of all exams. Among the exams that have been postponed are the Common Entrance Examination, known as “JEFF,” and the National Admission Eligibility Examination, “NET,” which are of utmost importance, and their results determine qualifications for admission to study in the fields of medicine and engineering.

Education in India is characterized by being a highly competitive arena, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, where competition is fiercest. For example, prestigious institutes of technology in India usually accept one student out of every 50 applicants. (For comparison: Harvard University accepts one student out of every 19 applicants, while Oxford University accepts one student out of every six applicants.)

With hundreds of thousands of students applying to respected colleges every year, very difficult exams, such as the “GIF” and “NET” exams, have been developed specifically to exclude large numbers of applicants, and losing a mark or two in such exams can lead to a decline in one’s chances. Students are accepted into thousands of ranks.

Some students spend most of their teenage years preparing for these exams, and most of them enroll in training institutes specialized in how to pass these exams, for which they give priority to preparing over any other preoccupations. All this in the hope that acceptance into a college with a respectable name will result in them receiving annual salaries of about $50,000 on average. It is a prize worth the effort in a country where the per capita income barely exceeds $2,000.

But this year, most students were not able to prepare for exams as normally necessary due to the lockdown and the uneven shift to online education. During the hour of their interactive meeting with the minister, the students complained about irregular internet connection and the difficulties of studying via video, which made it difficult to follow the educational sessions as well as evaluate their level of quality and effectiveness. As a result, many of them felt that in theory they had studied the curriculum, but in reality they understood little of it and were therefore not adequately prepared for the exams, which were considered the most important in their lives.

Government attempts to reschedule exams were met with protests by students who demanded further postponement or cancellation.IMAGE SOURCE,ALAMY

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Government attempts to reschedule exams were met with protests by students who demanded further postponement or cancellation.

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The institutes that work to prepare students to pass university entrance exams lack specific laws and regulations. They represent an industry valued at about four billion dollars, according to 2015 figures, and they exist in all sizes and shapes, from huge chains of institutes with branches across the country, to those... The small school is run by two people and its students are limited to the people of the neighborhood. In some cases, the economy of entire cities may depend on their reputation as attracting good study and training centers, and one of the most famous of these centers is Kota in the state of Rajasthan, which attracts about 100,000 students every year.

“The only thing they focus on is preparing you for university entrance exams, and what they teach students is how to do multiple-choice questions,” says Bindu Tirumalai, who works at the Center for Educational Innovation and Action Research at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. “They know it well, they know how it is set.” "How to recognize question patterns, how to eliminate definitely wrong answers, and also narrow down the options. These are the ideas they adopt, and they really master them."

Some training centers are very difficult to get into and even require passing their own entrance exams. There is no doubt that this approach is extremely stressful for students.

Rafali Prazadeh Idara, who in the early 2000s entered a scientific college through a training institute, and who works as a teacher in one of the large training institutes, describes the years she spent preparing to enter university as “stressful.” The classes I attended in Hyderabad started at four in the morning and ended at ten, after which the students could go to school. The dress code was strict, as were social guidelines. “Both for me then, and for the students I coach today, there is no social life at all,” she says.

Attending these training and strengthening sessions is essential and a difficult commitment, but many students consider that the hard effort they put in over the years is worth it if it results in them being accepted into a prestigious educational institution. But despite the students' determination and strong desire to study and prepare, the spread of the pandemic spoiled their plans.

“When the lockdown was imposed, my study schedule was undermined, and I lost interest in studying,” says Deepshika, a 19-year-old student. “I was focused on keeping track of when the exam might be scheduled.” Deepshika spent nearly four years preparing for the exam, and for more than two years she was trying to reconcile her school and lesson schedules at the training center.

A busy training center in Lucknow displays photos of its former students who have achieved professional successIMAGE SOURCE,ALAMY

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A busy training center in Lucknow displays photos of its former students who have achieved professional success

Although most training centers completed teaching the curriculum before the general lockdown was imposed, students lost the time usually allocated to review and mock exams. “We suffered a lot because of the shift to studying online,” says Asvini Thilai, an 18-year-old student who devoted a full year after completing her school studies to focus on preparing for the NAT exam.

Although Thilai is from the southern city of Chennai, she joined a training center in Delhi because she believes that being in a competitive environment motivates her to study better. But when the lockdown was imposed, she had to return to her city, and that was difficult. She explains: "Many could not get used to it. Some could not focus on studying because they live with their large families, while others had technical problems with the Internet."

According to Idara, the conditions created by the spread of the epidemic cast a shadow on the students, who were accustomed to the strict regime in the training centers. “These students are just pushed to study,” she says. “They have studied for many years together, and their lives involve almost nothing but that. They barely get ten days of vacation during the whole year, and every Sunday they have a written exam.”

She adds: "When you give them freedom in these circumstances, it is obvious that they will take advantage of it. Thus, they stopped studying, began watching a lot of television, and tried to watch the movies they had missed in recent years."

After months of ignoring the problem, the Indian government announced that the NEET and GIF exams would be held in September, which led to many objections from students, in addition to reports of a number of suicides among them. Despite enormous pressure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ignored the issue, choosing instead to use his monthly address to the nation to urge citizens to breed local breeds of dogs. The students expressed their protest by pressing the “Dislike” button more than 800,000 times on the video of the Prime Minister’s speech displayed on YouTube, which made the Prime Minister’s main channel cancel the feature of pressing the Dislike button.

“I had to think about protecting myself from the virus and deal with the pressure of taking a big and difficult exam at the same time,” says Jyotiraditya Raman Singh, who lives in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and took the GIF exam last September. “The students and observers are from all over India, so there was a huge fear of infection, which dominated my thinking.” The spread of the epidemic greatly affected Raman Singh's preparation for the exam, and he failed to obtain the grades required to enter any of the engineering colleges he had hoped to enter.

For Deepshika, this year was her second and final attempt to take the “GIF” exam, and her grades were not enough to enter one of the prestigious scientific colleges, and she believes that she must now accept to study at a second-class university in the state of Jharkhand, from which she came. Thilai, who took the NAT exam this year, did not do as well as she had hoped, and she is now preparing applications for dental school, which requires slightly lower GPAs.

A student's temperature is checked before she enters an examination center to take the NEET exam in KolkataIMAGE SOURCE,ALAMY

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A student's temperature is checked before she enters an examination center to take the NEET exam in Kolkata

The National Examinations Agency, which organizes the GIF exam, announced that this year students will be given the opportunity to take the exam four times instead of twice as usual. But to make room for the two additional sessions, the exam will start in February instead of April, while there is no official announcement regarding the NEET exam yet, but there does not seem to be a tendency to postpone it either.

Although many training centers are still closed or have switched to teaching online, in addition to 10 million Coronavirus cases recorded in India so far, within a few months students will have to take their exams in training centers, and they may have to travel for that.

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The teacher, Idara, says: "They are not prepared. They have been taking lessons online for five months, but they tell us that they do not study at all at home. They only listen to the lessons, or turn off the sound half the time." Therefore, it is not surprising that social media sites are flooded for the second time with calls to postpone exams.

However, while discussions about changing exam dates are loud, there is little talk about discussing issues related to India's higher education system, such as the lack of sufficient places in universities, and the consequences of focusing on passing entrance exams at the expense of actual learning and study.

“The crisis could have been used to rethink the education system,” says Soumitra Pathare, a psychologist and director of the Center for Mental Health Law and Policy at Ellis College of Law. “But it was not addressed that way.” Pathar believes that instead of trying to find long-term solutions, public discourse has focused on whether canceling exams or subjecting them to further postponement will lead to wasting the year in vain. “There is something that has really killed a lot of young people’s hopes this year,” she says, “and that is uncertainty. It was necessary to have a clear plan from the beginning about whether and when exams will be held. If there is anything that creates anxiety, it is Uncertainty.”

For Richit Bulbidi, a 17-year-old student from Hyderabad, the upcoming GIF exam will be a career-defining moment, but he did not prepare adequately for it. “Online lessons were not helpful enough,” he says. We have not even completed half of our curriculum, and it is very difficult to understand what was explained to us, due to the absence of real interaction with the teachers.”

As a result of his feelings of disappointment with the performance of the training center he attended, Bulbidi turned to private lessons and tutoring classes available on YouTube to help him catch up on what he had missed. He says of this: “I think that I may be able to complete the syllabus on my own in time for the exam. And if not If that happens, I will have to withdraw and try again next year.”