India Interior

School’s out for those not connected

Rakhi Ghosh | Updated on September 18, 2020 Published on September 18, 2020

Students in Odisha climb hilltops and sit under trees to tune into online classes

Online education during the pandemic blacks out marginalised students in Odisha’s rural districts

Every morning, 15-year-old Rabindra Badamajhi, a Class 9 student of Kotagarh High School in Odisha’s Kandhamal district, and his classmates walk far from their village Jharighati in search of Internet connectivity so that they can join online classes. “It is not as if there is connectivity at one particular point; sometimes we have to move to different locations. We take food and water bottles along with us,” says Rabindra, adding that children have to climb trees, or sit on the roadsides to get connected.

These days, Odisha’s remote villages have seen peculiar sights of school children with mobiles in their hands. Not wanting to miss out their online classes, they sit on tree branches, climb hill tops, or sit under tree sheds beside streets, tuning into lessons and taking notes. With schools closed, online classes are the new norm. And students of State-run schools in rural areas are facing enormous difficulties in catching classes online.

No longer inclusive

In the same Kandhamal district, Class 8 student, Surasen Majhi, 14, has been missing classes since Covid-19 triggered a nationwide lockdown. Majhi hails from the Majhiguda village in the Tumudibandha block, where there is no Internet connectivity. Also, most villagers here, including Surasen’s parents, cannot afford an Android phone. “We work as seasonal migrant labourers and collect forest produce to eke out a living. We never thought we would need a mobile phone, forget a smart phone,” says Surasen’s father, Dinabandhu, who is now without work for the last four months.

Surasen is not alone. There are thousands of children now being excluded from online classes because they do not have access to the Internet or a smartphone. So, the Odisha School Education Programme Authority’s (OSEPA) online content, such as e-vidya and Shiksha Sanjog, does not have universal reach.

Last February, 16-year-old Jashobant Bindhani of Morada High School in the Mayurbhanj district, was happy when promoted to Class 10. He was hopeful of becoming the first matriculate from his family. His parents Satyaban, a local paan shop owner and mother Padmabati, who collects leaves from the forest, were supportive despite their meagre income.

But the coronavirus pandemic has shattered Jashobant’s dreams. He now works as a daily wage labourer to support his family. It is difficult for him to continue his studies since his father cannot afford to buy him an Android phone. His father’s paan shop had to be closed during the lockdown, squeezing the family’s income. “We want him to continue studying online, but that’s not possible,” rues his father.

According to one study, of the six million school students in Odisha, 3.8 million have no access to online education. And among the remaining 2.2 million, the percentage of girl students is low. According to Anil Pradhan, Convener, Right to Education Forum, Odisha: “Since schools are closed because of the pandemic, girls have been encouraged to help with household chores, sibling care and sometimes work to augment family income.” Prolonged closure of schools, he adds, is leading to early marriages among girls, higher dropout rates and child labour.

Difficulties for teachers

Teachers also have had their share of problems conducting classes online. Students studying in State-run schools are mainly from poor, marginalised families. Also, issues like poor Internet connectivity, remote villages without power and digital ignorance among parents are hurdles. In fact, when teachers went door to door to collect mobile numbers, they found that very few families had smartphones. “We made WhatsApp groups but in a class of 15-20 students only four-five joined online classes,” says Samarendra Sahu, a teacher at Pentha Project Upper Primary School in Kendrapada. Even teachers don’t have access to smartphones. For instance, at the Shuliapada Primary School in the Mayurbhanj district, only the headmaster has a smartphone!

“The disparity and inequality in imparting online classes may have long-term implications. And it is also violative of the fundamental right to education of poor children,” says Ruchi Kashyap, Executive Trustee at Atmashakti Trust, an NGO that conducted a State-wide study among students amid the pandemic. “The study, apart from stressing the need to bridge learning gaps, suggests this is the right time for the government to renovate existing school buildings, construct extra classrooms to maintain physical distancing, and provide toilet and water facilities,” adds Naba Kishore Pujari of the Atmashakti Trust.

Many educationists feel that in Odisha, where 80 per cent students go to State-run schools and many parents cannot afford smartphones and computers, online classes are not the answer. Moreover, Internet coverage is less than 65 per cent and over 21,000 tribal villages are without electricity.

The writer is a Charkha Features associate from Bhubaneswar

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Published on September 18, 2020

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