At 6.45 every morning, when Pavitra Ichagutu steps out of her home, her heart is full of hope. She knows that just like her, the children living in Bhoya, a remote tribal village in Khuntpani block in West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand, are looking forward to the next two hours of interactive teaching. Ever since the schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, 24-year-old Ichagutu has ensured that the children don’t miss out on their studies even if it means taking classes under a tree.

In fact, she selected a big tree as the venue of her class because it would be difficult to conduct online teaching since not all the families possessed a smartphone. Further, limited internet access was another barrier. But Ichagutu wasn’t going to let that stop her.

She has taken several measures to facilitate their education while following all Covid protocols and precautions. Not only does she hold her classes outdoors under the tree but she has also given masks to all the 35 children in her class. She has also divided them into smaller groups since the children vary between the ages 6 and 12 so that she can pay individual attention.

“All the children are weak in studies. Since they are in classes one to five, it is an important time for them to strengthen their foundation. There is no one else who can teach them since schools are shut. I am happy I am able to help them,” says Ichagutu.

In the adjoining State of Bihar, Dimple Kumari follows a similar path to ensure children continue their education. Since there were several students who had access to smartphones, the 19-year-old decided to adopt a two-pronged strategy. For those with smartphones, Kumari prepares small educational videos on Mathematics and English, the two subjects she teaches. These videos are then converted into handwritten notes to ensure that children without smartphones do not fall behind in studies.

“Every day I follow this routine of making short videos, notes and sharing them with the students of different classes. If they have any queries, they ask me through WhatsApp. Those who receive notes either phone me or send a message if they have any questions and I meet them and help them,” reveals Kumari.

Digital and non-digital means

It is not just Ichagutu and Kumari who are leading the way in their villages. There are 60 such young men and women, aged 18 to 24, who are striving to ensure that children from marginalised communities in 80 villages in five districts in Bihar and two districts in Jharkhand don’t fall through the cracks. They are a part of a Youth Fellow initiative to prevent children from losing out on education, particularly during the pandemic. At present, about 2,000 children studying in classes 1 to 10 in the districts of Samastipur, Muzaffarpur, Saran, Vaishali and Jamui in Bihar, and Khunti and West Singhbhum in Jharkhand are engaged in improving their learning, thanks to these Youth Fellows.

Started in 2019 by Plan India, a not-for-profit working for children, the Youth Fellow programme was initially launched in Bihar and Jharkhand to boost the academic performances of children lagging behind in their studies, with remedial classes.

After spiralling cases of coronavirus led to a countrywide lockdown and closure of schools, Plan India and its local NGO partners in the two States collaborated with the School Management Committees comprising principals, teachers and parents and other community members to work out how the children could continue their education. It was decided that a combination of digital platforms like WhatsApp and YouTube and non-digital means would be used by the Youth Fellows.

Besides ensuring that the medium of instruction was local and inclusive, what has also made a big difference is the strategy to choose Youth Fellows with leadership skills from within the community. In Jamui, a district in Bihar affected by Naxalite activity, education has been difficult leading to dropouts and early marriages. But Sanjeet Kumar, one of the few graduates in his community, has been able to motivate 40 students, 30 of whom are girls, to continue their studies.

“I have been able to stop a couple of child marriages. I raise awareness about the Right to Education Act to encourage parents to send their daughters to school. I hold classes six days a week, both online and offline, to ensure that the girls pick up. The parents and children trust me and that is my biggest reward,” says the 24-year-old Kumar.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi