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For the poor, online learning a big obstacle

Vikram Adsul, a teacher from a zilla parishad school in Karjat Ahmednagar, is having busier days since the lockdown led to closure of schools in March. Adsul’s school, nested in a small hamlet called Bandgar Vasti, has students from the Dhangar community, many of whom have no access to mobiles and internet. “While many schools have smoothly transitioned from offline to online, students like ours who already struggle to get access to education are finding it difficult to adapt. Many do not have smartphones, and even the ones who have them have no internet range. We have to call students and talk to them or meet them every few days to keep their morale high in addition to teaching them,” said Adsul.

As the uncertainty around physical reopening of schools continues with increasing number of Covid-19 cases, online learning has become the new normal for schools across the country.

However, for lakhs of students from underprivileged backgrounds in cities and villages, online learning might be no learning, say experts.

To begin with, data from the state education department early this month reveals that over 26% students in Maharashtra do not have access to even a mobile phone; which can act as a big barrier in online learning.

“In remote parts of the state and the country, we cannot sustain with the online-only model for a long time. Children need schools not just for actual studies but also to have a conducive learning and growing environment which their homes often fail to provide. Schools are an empowering space, especially for girls,” said Hemangi Joshi, an RTE activist from Mumbai. “Things like midday meals are also big factors in drawing students to schools. Online-only learning would mean that a lot of these students are likely to drop out.”

Barriers beyond access

While issue regarding access is a key concern, experts say it is just the tip of the iceberg. Even in cases where students have access to phones or internet, their parents who come from low income groups with little or no education are likely to find it difficult to support their learning at home.

Padma Sarangapani, chairperson, Centre for Education Innovation and Action Research at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), said a lot of the responsibility for a child’s learning will now depend on parents.

“The question is whether parents have the time, bandwidth and orientation to support their children’s learning, and whether the government schooling system can put into place a system of supporting parents to learn and access resources for their children,” she added.

Chetna Duggal, project director at the School Initiative of Mental Health Advocacy at TISS, said migration and resultant emotional distress among low income households due to the pandemic has an impact on the child’s overall wellbeing, thereby affecting learning. “Witnessing and experiencing parental distress, financial crisis, undergoing transitions, disruptions of routine, lack of safe spaces and inability to meet peers and supportive people can have deep psychological impact on children. This can interfere with their capacity to pay attention, concentrate and engage with learning new material or developing new skills,” she added.

In Mumbai, the migrant exodus has displaced nearly 1.15 lakh or 21% of the total students enrolled in civic and private primary schools, data from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation reveals.

Rajkiran Chavan, a teacher from Solapur, said seeing and interacting with their teachers on a regular basis is key to learning for children from low income families, something that is disrupted during the pandemic. “Not all students have the bandwidth to see live videos. But even the preloaded content on various educational apps is not customised for their needs. They lose interest in the content due to language barriers and lack of subjectivity in content,” said Chavan.

The way ahead

While the state education department has announced the commencement of the academic year 2020-21 from June 15, the reopening of physical schools is likely to take a couple of months more. Sarangapani said the most important thing that schools need to do during these tough times is to not expect pedagogical outcomes from parents. “We don’t want parents to become teaching assistants and teach their children ‘literacy’ and ‘numeracy’. But we can expect them to do various kinds of interactive activities with their children, and make sure their children can read aloud to them. One possibility is to have a resource library accessible to parents who can access these for their children to use and get some advice on how to use and what to expect,” she added.

Chavan and a group of 45-odd teachers in Solapur have decided to prepare a video resource library for students across the state where teachers aim to create over 1,000 educational videos in the next two months. “These will be short videos that can be opened with slow internet and will be easy to understand.”

The role of school leaders and teachers is considered to be crucial in the interim. “They too might need support on how to get in touch with parents and have conversations over phone or chat to check on the wellbeing and safety of families and children, or develop skills in conducting emotional check-ins with students and opening up conversations with them about how they are coping at this time, and how to respond if children are in distress or at risk,” added Duggal.

Duggal is now spearheading an initiative called ‘Back to School’ launched by the School Initiative of Mental Health Advocacy which aims to support emotional well-being of students by training and sensitising school leaders, teachers and counsellors.

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