Covid-19: Look, who’s waiting for the school bell to ring again

Shristi Achar | | Updated on: Jan 26, 2022
The lack of a dedicated space for study is affecting many children, especially in rural areas

The lack of a dedicated space for study is affecting many children, especially in rural areas | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Beyond just the digital divide, schoolchildren forced to go online are battling screen fatigue, distractions at home, and loss of social skills

Tejasvi Bhonsle mentors children aged around 11, studying in Std VI. Much like everywhere in the world today, her class is online, with students crammed into tiny “boxes” on her screen over a Whatsapp call.

“My students don’t have a proper environment to study in, now that they aren’t in class,” she says. “I have a student sitting for lectures in an abandoned auto rickshaw outside his house, since he doesn’t get proper network connectivity inside. There are people constantly distracting him in the middle of class, there are fights around him, with slang language thrown around. So the environment that lets him focus on studies in an offline class doesn’t exist anymore,” she says.

Bhonsle, a volunteer with Child Rights and You (CRY), is part of a programme that aims to close the education gap for underprivileged children.

Yukta, another CRY volunteer, says the absence of a supportive environment makes things worse.

“Most kids in rural communities stay in one-room households shared by four or five people. There is always some noise or distraction,” she says. One of her mentees has three younger siblings and is constantly distracted during the hour-long class, she adds.

No ‘room’ for education

The lack of a dedicated space for study is affecting many children, especially in rural areas, with the much-discussed digital divide proving to be just the first hurdle in bridging the education gap in the country.

“There is usually just one smartphone shared by three or four children,” explains Yukta. “The parents go out for work and can’t leave their devices at home. Additionally, the children often have to help their parents in their work.”

In the face of many such obstacles, a lot of children either drop out or struggle to focus during online lessons, she says.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2021 highlighted the issue of limited access to smartphone. As their findings showed, “expanding smartphone availability in the household does not automatically translate into children’s access to a smartphone. Across all grades, although over two-thirds of all enrolled children have a smartphone at home, just over a quarter of these have full access to it for their studies (27 per cent), while close to half have partial access (47 per cent) and the remaining quarter have no access at all (26.1 per cent)“.

ThinkSharp Foundation, founded by Santosh Phad, is among several organisations that have helped schools around the country bridge the digital divide in education.

While his organisation did try to ensure continuity in learning through online schooling, Phad concedes that the online system cannot substitute offline schooling.

“While initially it was exciting to have classes over video calls, that soon wore off. Now everybody wants the online mode to end as it is just a one-way communication, where teachers share information. Since students don’t know how to interact anymore, there isn’t any participation in class. Even the teachers don’t know how to maintain decorum in their classes, because they can’t really control what is happening on screen.”

Village schools left bereft

In rural areas, the school is often like a first home to many students and its closure has hit them hard, says Phad. “Along with learning, they received food in the school, and could bond with their peers.”

Children from villages were also less equipped with digital literacy compared to their urban peers, Phad says, pointing to yet another yawning gap.

Jaydeep, a Std VI student from Navi Mumbai, has been attending online classes for the past two years. He gets up around 7 in the morning, and goes about his day at home, studying and watching cartoons, until his school classes begin at 3 in the afternoon and continue until 5.30 pm. The lessons revolve around core subjects like Maths, English and Science, and usually ends with an extracurricular activity such as Physical Training or Yoga.

While Jaydeep hasn’t seen or interacted with most of his schoolmates for the past two years, he gets to meet a few of them at the football coaching sessions his school conducts over the weekends. He also manages to play with kids his age near his home in the evenings.

Recently, IT company HP’s ‘Future of Learning Study 2022’ reported that a majority of students and teachers in the major cities welcomed the hybrid mode of education, and attributed continuity of education to online learning.

Respondents even said that the extra time during the day allowed students to pursue hobbies and other activities of interest. While urban children like Jaydeep have had their challenges with online schooling, their access to electronic devices predates the pandemic, easing their adoption of online schooling.

Social skills impacted

Regression of social skills in children is yet another concern among educators, especially in rural settings.

Rajnikanth Mendhe is a teacher at the zilla parishad school in Gohre Budruk, near Pune, which is supported by ThinkSharp. Describing the challenges brought by online teaching, he says,

“Initially only three or four students had a smartphone. So the other kids could not join in. Once we arranged devices for them, we could complete the syllabus. But it was impossible to offer any extracurricular activities The classes are periodically hit due to network issues or lack of money to buy data packs.”

He rues the fact that children can no longer learn through activities, which is especially effective for younger learners.

“They aren’t interested in just the subjects; they like coming to school and talking to their peers. And since they can’t do that, they don’t take any interest in studying now,” he adds.

Chandni, a CRY volunteer, says students of higher classes do not necessarily fare better either.

“I teach at a municipality school in Kalyan that has classes upto Std VIII, after which students usually shift to another school. The students always found it difficult to adjust to the new environment. We used to conduct group activities and role plays to help them deal better with it. However, with the online mode we are unable to conduct these group activities and many kids have dropped out. From 10-12 children we now have just two.”

Tejasvi mentions a student who wouldn’t answer in class or speak up, despite being encouraged to do so.

“I talked to his parents to find out the reason, but they had no idea since, according to them, he was a very talkative child. I found out that he was silent in class owing to the lack of personal interaction, which upset him Since he couldn’t talk to people he was not comfortable with, he stopped talking altogether.”

Testing times

The toll on learning outcomes has been steep too.

Bazela Hawa, a teacher with The Aakanksha Foundation, says there are children who answer with barely two words in their tests.

“In the first unit test I held for the class, only ten students submitted it immediately, and I had to call and ask the remaining 50 to submit it. They know they will be t promoted anyway, so they don’t attach any importance to exams or education.”

Touching on the importance of interpersonal interaction in imparting education, Mendhe says, “Children learn best when they like their teachers.” He describes that when schools had reopened briefly, there were restrictions and social distancing.

When the teachers were firm about these rules and the proper use of mask, students felt intimidated, he says. “And this wouldn’t let them open up to us or listen to us.”

Struggling to make a success of online classes, Mendhe now conducts offline sessions by the riverside at his village in the mornings, and couples it with online sessions in the evening.

“The school can’t be officially open, but I can get them together in the village to teach them some things,” he says.

Many parents, too, seem to have come round to this line of thinking, pitching for reopening schools and on-site classes.

From his interactions with parents at the schools his organisation supports, Padh encounters just one request — to get children back into classes.

“About 90 per cent of the parents badly want their children to attend classes physically again. They struggle to tend to their kids idling at home, fighting for their attention and food, when they have to go out to work.”

Published on January 26, 2022
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