New Delhi: Nearly 16 lakh children from poor families studying in government and municipal schools in the national capital are staring at disruptions in their studies without access to mobiles, internet and laptops or desktops, even as privileged students from private schools are taking online classes amid the coronavirus lockdown.
The Aam Aadmi Party-run Delhi government has started teaching Class 12 students on the Zoom app, but most of the students in primary and middle schools are struggling as they have either no access to assignments, or find it virtually impossible to study mathematics and many other subjects through WhatsApp or other platforms.
Municipal schools appear to be even worse off — authorities of the north, south and east zones of the MCD might have issued orders on paper to school principals and teachers to assign work on WhatsApp, but the ground reality is quite different.
ThePrint’s interaction with primary school students, their parents, and teachers from MCD schools revealed how everyone was struggling to bridge the digital gap — many families do not have smartphones, let alone computers or laptops. Some said they don’t know how to use WhatsApp, while some parents are engaged in essential services and need to take their only phone with them on duty.
Number of govt-run schools in Delhi
Of the three civic bodies, the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) has the maximum number of schools, 714, with over 3.5 lakh students. East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC) has 364 schools with over 1.7 lakh students, while the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) has nearly 2.5 lakh children in 575 schools.
The New Delhi Municipal Council, an autonomous body under the Ministry of Home Affairs, also runs 45 schools with 30,000 students.
The Delhi government, meanwhile, runs another 1,028 schools with 15.15 lakh students. Of these, 1.12 lakh class 12 students are already taking classes on the Zoom app in 11 subjects, according to officials of the Delhi education department. Another 8 lakh students up to Class 8 are being assigned work through text messages and interactive voice recording (IVR).
Problems at municipal schools
A teacher from an SDMC school in Sarvapriya Vihar, requesting anonymity, said the very first problem in implementing the plan is: “We do not even have the database for the students or the parents’ contact numbers to be able to reach out to them.”
The teacher said there isn’t even a computer in the school for teachers to feed phone numbers into.
A mathematics teacher from a North Delhi municipal school agreed that executing the plan is a huge problem. “While my school hasn’t received any orders, several others I know have been told to start WhatsApp class. But subjects like maths cannot be taught on these applications, even for those who use WhatsApp. How will one check calculations?”
Chetan and his sister Anandi are students of Class 5 and Class 1, respectively, in different MCD schools in Kapashera. Their parents sell vegetables for a living. Chetan, who wants to be a police officer, told ThePrint that they have not received any assignments from school on their father’s phone since the lockdown began. “We haven’t got any work; since schools closed, it’s been a holiday for us.”
In the jhuggi cluster where they live, another student who studies at a private school, Little Flower Ideal School, also hasn’t received any assignment. Asked about this, school officials said their teachers weren’t trained to hold online classes.
Rajat Ram, a labourer in Samaypur Badli, had no clue what WhatsApp meant when he received a call from his son Rohan’s class teacher at an NDMC school. “Madam called five days ago, and I didn’t have WhatsApp. Now my son has explained it to me and I’ve downloaded the app, but no work has been assigned by the school yet,” he said.
Asked about this, NDMC commissioner Varsha Joshi told ThePrint: “Teachers present at food distribution centres to give dry rations are calling up parents and asking them to collect worksheets too when they come to collect food.”
Teachers at NDMC schools have not received their salaries for February and March, and are finding it difficult to make ends meet amid the lockdown, even as they continue to distribute rations and a few take classes. Joshi said the matter had been taken up several times, but there has been no progress so far.
However, Sheila, a domestic worker whose daughter studies at an EDMC school in Vinod Nagar East, is able to view assignments on her class WhatsApp group. Assignments are mostly on the lines of ‘listing 10 occupations that are dependent on animals’ and ‘draw musical instruments’.
EDMC Additional Commissioner Alka Sharma said at least 15,000 students between classes 3-5 had been included on WhatsApp groups, and were engaging with teachers.
Situation at Delhi govt schools
Delhi government school teachers, meanwhile, are encouraging simple activities that are easier for parents to monitor.
A senior official of the Delhi education department said: “We are trying to overcome challenges and hence started an SMS system to assign work, as even if families don’t have internet, nearly every household has a phone.”
However, the official said there were constraints like a household with three students having just one phone.
Ganesh, son of a domestic worker in GK-II, can no longer use his father’s second-hand phone as it broke recently. The father’s employer offered to buy him a simple smartphone, but realised delivery of non-essentials online wasn’t possible amid the lockdown. The employer, who did not wish to be named, said: “I felt very bad, so I give my phone every morning when Ganesh has his classes. The teacher now has my number. I guess that’s the least I could do.”
But not every student has a benefactor. While the Delhi government had distributed tablets to 17,000 students of Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalayas and other schools of excellence, several others don’t have the gadgets required for online classes.
A Class 12 student of a government school in Lajpat Nagar, son of a newspaper vendor, is worried because the household doesn’t have a computer or a smartphone. “I have to write the boards next year, but I don’t know how I’ll be able to complete the syllabus. We don’t even have books, else I would’ve tried to study by myself,” the student said.
Teachers, too, said they are learning as they go along. Sources said the Delhi government has even tied up with an NGO whose mentors are training their teachers. A Class 12 maths teacher at a school in Mehrauli said: “I didn’t understand online teaching. We too are learning, but it’s tough to teach a subject like maths online.”
The problems of limited resources and poor connectivity are compounded for students with disabilities.
A visually-impaired student at a Delhi government school, who didn’t wish to be identified, said: “Assignments on WhatsApp were not possible for me. I don’t have parents and my grandparents too old to use WhatsApp.”
Need to find smarter ways
Asked about the increasing gap between the rich and poor during the Covid-19 crisis, educationist Meeta Sengupta said it is indeed worrisome.
“If we are lucky, and it is a short disruption, we will need excellence from our teachers to fill this gap. But if the disruption carries on for longer, we will have to find smarter ways to enable remote learning, and not just online learning,” she said.
Sengupta added that schools in the private sector and others have already started work on building remote learning resources, and have been trying to build student engagement.
“We are all new to this version of remote learning, so we will all have to work harder to prevent a big learning gap between the rich and the poor,” she said.
An international problem
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has said over 154 crore students around the world are affected due to the Covid-related school closures, and has suggested a six-point strategy to combat the problem.
The strategy includes leveraging teachers and communities, adopting appropriate distance learning practices, considering the digital divide, safeguarding vital services and engaging young people.
UNESCO has also pointed out that disrupting schooling can also lead to other harder-to-measure losses, including inconvenience to families and decreased economic productivity, as parents struggle to balance work obligations with childcare.