Delhi-based Siya Khanna, an 18-year-old who will appear for her Class 12 board exams this year, says she hopes "with every fibre" in her body that when she goes to college it's not online. The Covid-19 pandemic forced her school to conduct classes online the last two years. When schools did open up this year, after the Omicron wave receded, it was already time for her prep leave. So the hopes she had, of attending even the last few days of classes in person, were dashed.
"When it got announced that even 2022 was going to be offline, I think in all of our minds we thought, ok, we basically went to school till 10th," Siya told BOOM.
The first three months of college for Isha Pandey, an 18-year-old psychology and philosophy student at the Delhi University, has only been online. Isha had just started Class 12 when the pandemic hit in 2020. "I remember talking to my friends, and we all hoped that school would reopen, but that did not happen. The first time I went to school was a year after, almost, in January 2021," Isha said, adding, "I liked going to school".
India's teenagers have missed out on the crucial years of school having them feeling more isolated, demotivated and anxious. Online classes not only kept them away from a sense of community but also made it difficult to keep up with their studies.
Riddhi Kwatra, a 14-year-old student of Class 9 in Mumbai, said, "Personally, I felt that it was hard to keep up. Online classes weren't motivating, so it used to be hard to get myself to join. Even if I did join, I'd easily get distracted." Riddhi has able to go back to school for now and hopes things stay that way.
While even adults have been struggling to find a sense of certainty in the chaos of the pandemic, for teens it has hit much harder. Delhi-based clinical psychologist Ruchika Kanwal said, "The sense of belonging is missing when kids are not going to school."
Loss of friendships and community
Experts said that schools bring a structure, routine and a sense of community, especially for teenagers as they are just beginning to "discover themselves". Ila Kulshrestha, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist, said, "Community also creates competition. If I don't feel like I'm part of a community, I'm no longer motivated to perform to a certain level, because there is no kind of bar to walk towards."
The hardest part about not going to school, for both Siya and Isha, were missing their friends. As Siya got moved to a new class, separated from old friends, divided according the streams they chose, she now had to make new friends. But the way to friendship was only virtual and no longer shared tiffins. "I only made like four-five friends and the rest of the class I didn't even know that well." She barely talked to any of her classmates or teachers outside of her online class hours.
While farewell parties are something that all of the senior students look forward to in school, Siya's got cancelled. "Our farewell was supposed to happen in January, but then the third wave came. So we weren't able to go ahead with that. But the school is planning to host one in March."
For Isha, the farewell party happened, but not all classes were invited together to maintain Covid protocols. So she did not get to celebrate the last day of school with some of her friends. Meanwhile, she didn't attend the gathering that was organised by the students themselves as it was at the beginning of the second wave. "This was in March 2020," Isha said.
Missing such milestones in their lives has left young adults with a sense of loss. While they did keep in touch with their friends online, they agreed that it wasn't the same as attending physical classes. Ila said, "You build some of the most authentic friendships (during your teens) because you've been around them for long enough and now you're mature enough to invest in social relationships. This is could actually be a good time to make good relationships, relationships that make them have trust in the other."
Coping With Studies
Online classes have also affected how teens study. Kanupriya Khanna, Siya's mother, is worried about Siya's brother who is 14. She said, "My son's notebooks are blank this year even though he seems to be doing well on his tests and exams."
Riddhi said her studies took a turn for the worse during online classes. "I missed the kind of focus I would get in class and studying with my friends is a different experience. It would build my confidence a lot more, which I didn't get when my classes were online." She said she missed remembering nuggets from the classroom that would help her write answers during exams.
Online classes for the more senior students meant that they were grappling to wrap their heads around complex concepts. Siya never had actual classes for the practical part of her studies. "All our practicals happened online. It wasn't really practical, it was basically our teachers just showing on videos 'this is what the practical is supposed to be like'. We never went into a lab or used chemicals or specimens or any of that."
For Siya even preparing for her law entrance exams has been difficult as all the special classes she is taking for that are also online.
Ila said that this was happening because even though online classes were a good system of information dissemination, "they don't create great platforms for creating analytical reasoning". And this isn't good for teenagers as their brains are still developing and their attention spans fluctuate.
"When I am learning something in school, I am also learning to put it in a context, there is a conversation outside of the predecided, narrated lesson. There is a lot of informal conversation with teachers, which has just gotten lost. So the entire feeling of being mentored is slowly reducing. Teachers bring so much more to kids' lives than just lessons. They're not just teaching information, they're also building other nuances for these growing humans," Kulsreshtha said.
Teens are more anxious and less motivated
Kanupriya is worried that her children's routines have been upended due to online classes. "Discipline has gone for a toss, (their) sleep routine is all over the place and their time spent on YouTube or video games is sky-high."
The teenagers BOOM spoke to said they were having difficulties in maintaining routines. Changing timetables and unpredictability made things even tougher. "The timetable keeps changing so I wouldn't even bother to include that as a part of my routine. If I was awake then I would attend classes, if not then it's just that. It was hard to keep my routine running because everything was so unpredictable, suddenly opening and suddenly closing," said Riddhi.
Part of going to school pre-pandemic also meant meeting friends, sharing desks, stationery snippets of their personal lives or even lunch. Ruchika said the loss of motivation was also connected to children not having these tiny pockets of fun to look forward to. If attending classes became monotonous, there was always a sports class or a free period. "Now you're constantly by yourself," she said.
Teenage is also a time when children begin to identify who they are through socialising and interacting with their peers — whether they're outgoing or introverts, whether they like public speaking or want to keep to themselves. Joining clubs, participating in functions also add to the personalities develop at this age. "As kids, we learn a lot of what's happening in our world when it is a shared experience or it is an experience that I can talk about to someone else for it to feel real and concrete because that's how our reasoning is developing," Ila said. Online classes meant such experiences weren't part of the lives of many teens.
What does this mean in the long term?
While it's still too soon to tell how this will affect an entire generation of teens who spent a good part of school online, the experts said the effects are already starting to show in terms of worries about the future or spending more time doing solitary activities. Experts suggest that this is already giving rise to a lot of anxiety and depression among teens.
Being around friends and interacting with people of different personalities also helps teens learn social skills and how to navigate complicated situations. This is also a time when children venture out of the value systems inculcated by their parents. Not being around other people is giving rise to social anxiety as well. Ruchika said, "It's (social anxiety) become worse because there is no exposure to challenge your own anxiety around a social setup. I can theoretically tell the child what to do with their social anxiety but there's no exposure to what they are processing in therapy. It just keeps putting the child behind."
Growing up in a world where meeting another human posed a threat to their lives because of the virus has also increased trauma. Ila said, "It is changing the fibre of how our nervous system is looking at danger and what constitutes a danger. And people (because of Covid) constitute danger suddenly. We don't know how much that expands or what that means in terms of our social interactions but we already see a lot more anxiety and trauma responses than we've seen in a really long time."
This story is a part of a BOOM series on Covid-19 and children.
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