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In a class of its own

| Updated on August 21, 2020 Published on August 21, 2020

Open-air community schools in Kashmir’s Doodhpathri Valley bring hope to a region where consecutive lockdowns have crippled education

The green expanses of Doodhpathri (valley of milk), a famous picnic spot in Kashmir’s Budgam district, are seeing a different kind of gathering these days. These are groups of children, who walk along streams, cross bridges and hop over boulders to attend open-air classes every morning. While schools, parents and students across India grapple with online education in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, administrators in the Doodhpathri zone decided to take classroom teaching outside enclosed spaces.

Since August 5, 2019 — the day the Centre scrapped Kashmir’s special status under the Constitution of India — indefinite curfews and communication blockades have mutilated normal life in the former state beyond recognition. A nationwide lockdown in order to contain the spread of novel coronavirus made things worse for Kashmir as it suffered further losses in terms of business, education and tourism. The education department of the Doodhpathri zone — a region that used to attract summer tourists — saw the vast, empty meadows as a safe space for holding classes for children who have not attended school for several months now.

With face masks firmly in place, around 1,000 children from nearby villages now troop in for classes at 13 schools in the zone every morning. Many of them belong to Gujjar and Bakarwal communities, nomadic people who rear sheep. More than 1,500 masks have been distributed among the students while several philanthropists have come forward to provide extra supplies. Mohammad Ramzan Wani, zonal education officer, says that teachers went door to door to persuade parents to send their children to these schools. They began with just three schools in July but the number went up by 10 when more families responded to the initiative.

The school timings are restricted to just three hours because sitting under the sun in an unusually hot year in Kashmir is not easy. There are windy and rainy days as well, but the spirited children of Doodhpathri don’t want to miss classes.

Text and photos by Nissar Ahmad

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Published on August 21, 2020