New Delhi: The rise in Covid-19 cases has prompted several state governments to reissue instructions for closure of schools like they had done in the first and second waves of the pandemic. As a result, after a brief window when students returned to their classrooms, they have once again been forced to go back to online learning.
The transition hasn’t been easy for students, especially those from poor families, who have little or no access to online learning tools like personal computers, tablets or smartphones. It has been equally difficult for teachers, who have been struggling to ensure that there are no disruptions. They feel that governments should provide them with alternative methods — apart from online classes — of reaching out to such students.
While some teachers suggest that state governments should set up a free radio service or Direct-to-Home television channel for students so course content can be broadcast, others feel the authorities should allow street classrooms by allotting gardens or school playgrounds for rotational classes. In May 2020, the Ministry of Education had turned to DTH channels to provide education to students amid school closure. According to a statement by the ministry: “The content will be telecast on the 12 ‘Swayam Prabha’ channels that the ministry has on DTH platforms such as Airtel and Dish TV. The initiative will be part of a larger ‘PM e-vidya’ package.”
While ThePrint confirmed that the services are functioning, teachers are clearly unaware of them.
Phone calls, an email and a text message to the ministry for this article did not elicit a response. This article will be updated once it does.
ThePrint also approached Himanshu Gupta, director of Delhi’s Department of Education, and Kakarla Usha, principal secretary for school education in Tamil Nadu, through phone calls and text messages, but did not get a response till the time of publication of this report. This article will be updated when they respond.
At present, a lot of government schools are resorting to teaching via WhatsApp voice notes, while others try to use online services provided by state governments, various teachers told ThePrint.
Following the first Covid lockdown, imposed in March 2020, students reportedly missed out on more than 500 days of physical classes. According to Unified District Information System for Education (UDISE+) data released last year by the central government for 2019-20, nearly 78 per cent schools (government and private) in India didn’t have internet facilities, and more than 61 per cent did not have computers.
‘Online learning doesn’t work for everyone’
Hitesh, a teacher at Thakkar Public School of Ahmedabad, said his school uses a Microsoft link to hold online classes, but student attendance has dropped significantly since not all of them have access to phones or the internet.
“The minute we see news of school closures, we know our students are going to suffer. It has had a detrimental impact on student learning. Can you imagine, more than 50 per cent of my students don’t even have phones to study. How do we teach them?” he told ThePrint.
For many teachers, their duties have gone beyond education. A 57-year-old political science teacher who works at a government school in Tughlakabad area of Delhi told ThePrint on condition of anonymity that there have been instances when teachers have reached out to students who are regularly missing classes, only to hear them say they have not eaten for days. “In such instances, we try our best to provide as much food as we can so that our students don’t have to suffer,” she added.
She further said that for students who miss online classes due to lack of constant access to phones, they resort to WhatsApp voice notes: “Since most of our students have gone back to their homes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, they can’t attend online classes due to lack of constant access to phones and connectivity. Making WhatAapp voice notes is the only means of communication. We send lessons to them and dictate question-answers via the app. Students can study using them whenever a phone is available to them.”
Students who live near school can drop off their notebooks for checking. “They have to submit their notebooks once every few days. Once these books come in, they are sanitised and put away for three days, after which we wear masks and gloves and check them,” she said, adding that while their work has doubled, they are still trying their best to help their students.
Teachers in other parts of the country that ThePrint spoke to, including Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan, also said that the constant school closures have had a detrimental impact on student learning, adding that attendance in online classes has significantly dropped amid the third wave.
Shivani Agrawal, who looks after two civic body-run schools — one in Mumbai’s Andheri and the other in Juhu — under the ambit of her NGO Nagrik Satta, told ThePrint that the closure of schools has been a big challenge for teachers.
“The student-teacher connect is completely lost. We don’t know yet what kind of learning loss has happened in students due to school closure. Attendance has dropped to 10-20 per cent since most students either don’t have phones or have taken to doing odd jobs to provide for their families,” she added.
A teacher in Chennai, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint that he has to go door-to-door to his students’ homes to keep a check on whether they are able to study. “More than anything else, the pandemic has reduced learning assessments to a zero. There’s no way to tell if a student has actually understood the concepts or is simply copying answers in their tests,” he added.
Radio, street classrooms: Teachers suggest alternatives
Sant Ram, a teacher at Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya of Subhash Nagar, Delhi, believes that there should be alternatives to online learning at their disposal to ensure that education does not stop despite closure of schools.
“During the months when schools had reopened, we witnessed 100 per cent attendance. Then it again dropped to 10 per cent with cases rising. When we already know that online education as a means has completely failed for our students, why do we keep relying on it?” he told ThePrint.
“Instead, state governments should help set up a free radio service or a DTH channel for children wherein course content can be broadcast for students across states. All teachers don’t have the provisions to record videos of themselves teaching,” he added.
In July 2020, the central government had in its guidelines stated that children who do not have access to facilities like smartphones, internet, TV and radio, can be taught through community methods. The guidelines, prepared by National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), had listed three modes of learning — online, partially online and offline.
The Centre had suggested that state and district authorities could use panchayat union offices, public places or loudspeakers to impart mass education. However, the implementation of this has been minimal, barring exceptions like the Bankathi village in Jharkhand’s Dumka district, where a school headmaster has installed loudspeakers to impart lessons, or in Haryana, where the education department has allotted four All India Radio (AIR) stations to broadcast educational content for college students.
Leena Sharma, a government school teacher in Bangreda village on the Rajasthan-MP border, said the internet connection in the village is sketchy, making online education next to impossible. “Most of our students’ parents are farmers and they don’t have smartphones. Even for those who do have smartphones, poor connectivity forces our students to sit on terraces to download study material,” she told ThePrint.
“Our biggest help is the radio education service that Shiksha Darshan provides. It is a service started by the Rajasthan government. As teachers we are always going door-to-door to spread awareness regarding education. We try our best to meet the needs of our students,” she added.
Hitesh of Thakkar Public School in Ahmedabad believes an additional provision of conducting street classrooms should be allowed while schools stay closed, where district authorities can allot gardens or school playgrounds for rotational classes.
“In 2020, after the lockdown continued for two months, I decided to meet my students in parks. We would mask up and sit at a distance under a tree and I would solve their doubts. District authorities should give such provisions to schools where students cannot afford expensive phones,” he added.
For Lakshmi Devi, a government school teacher in Savasuddi district of Karnataka, the only thing that has worked so far is meeting her students twice a week. “All students who have doubts or no phones come to school twice a week. We discuss concepts and I help them with their doubts. For poor children, online education cannot replace the learning that happens in physical classes,” she told ThePrint.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)