Pratishtha Shelatkar, a student of Suvidyalaya High School in Borivali, a government-aided private school, used to attend morning classes before the pandemic struck and schools were shut down. Most kids in Pratishtha’s class come from underprivileged families with their parents working as labourers, cleaners or other low income jobs; hence, families of these children can barely even afford to pay bills, let alone be able to afford a smartphone and timely data recharges.
In most of these families, only one of the parents has a smartphone but the children don’t have access to it until the parents come back home from work. So, her school, like several others in Mumbai, decided to accommodate these children into the system by starting night classes between 7 pm and 9 pm. It was figured that this was a convenient time for children to attend classes, because they would have access to a phone, even if there was just one shared within the family.
Also, their parents could now keep an eye on them during these sessions and make sure they were focused and engaged in class activities.
Pratishtha’s mother mentioned that before the schools made this shift, a lot of the students were unable to attend online classes. Those who did were also struggling with multiple challenges. With schools shut for over a year now, children have developed a certain restlessness, often unable to sit in one place and concentrate on what is being taught. The introduction of night classes has ensured that at least one parent is involved in class activities and can be physically present as a disciplinary figure, in the place of a teacher.
“A parent’s active participation is imperative for a symbiotic relationship between a child and his studies, especially during the pandemic” said a teacher from Suvidyalaya. “Although it may sound idealistic, I do see a lot of parents from these families putting in a lot of effort towards their child’s education.”
It is true, however, that night classes have created their own share of problems for some, both among parents and teachers. Ganga Dayal, the mother of a student in the fourth grade studying at Pahadi School, voiced her concern for her children missing out on playtime in the evening, because for a lot of their peers in other schools, classes continue to be held in the morning. “Pratishtha missed a lot of her Bharatnatyam classes, which she really enjoyed attending, because the school timings clashed with her classes,” said her mother.
For a teacher at Suvidyalaya, juggling work and household chores was a challenge. “My husband and son go to work in the morning, and come back in the evening. The school timings make my evenings a little hectic, but I am happy to teach the children,” she said.
Such individual niggles notwithstanding, overall, night classes seem to be a step in the right direction as most concur that it has indeed made the school system more inclusive and accommodative for children of all backgrounds.
Larger issues remain
However, the impact of the pandemic on these children and their families has been so overarching that despite the schools’ best efforts at such innovative solutions, pupils continue to grapple with various issues.
For one thing, these kids are of an impressionable age and many parents are concerned that their children’s minds are under-stimulated; they are not getting enough social exposure which is so essential for holistic character development. “A classroom and interaction with peers are essential in the school years. It provides a neutral environment for social interactions that aids in developing skills like setting boundaries, learning cooperation and empathy,” said Hansa Doshi, a student counsellor at DSRV, a school in the Mumbai suburbs. A lot of children have even lost interest in extracurricular activities outside of school, said Dayal.
Migration is yet another reality that has made learning difficult. Many working class families have had to move back to their villages because of the lockdown. Their jobs and livelihoods endangered by the strict lockdown, they could no longer afford rent in Mumbai. Even for those who could, given the precariousness of the situation, it did not make sense to pay so much money in rent merely to be stuck in a 30 sq ft room with a minimum of four family members. But the move to their native villages has had its own effect on the children’s lives.
“In these villages, it is hard to find network coverage,” said Pratishtha’s mother, “because of which children are finding it difficult to attend classes.” A lot of these schools that they attend don’t have an online portal for them to submit projects and assignments, so children displaced by the lockdown are at a bigger disadvantage, since they cannot go to their schools and submit their assignments.
Network issues, of course, pose a challenge not only in the villages. Ganesh, a seventh standard student living in Aarey colony, said, “There is no network coverage in my house, so I have to take my father with me to an open ground nearby, where it is easier to find Internet connectivity for the duration of my classes.” This is evidently an unsustainable solution, especially in the Mumbai monsoons.
Solutions to complement night classes
One of the steps for schools to consider is the launch of an online portal for all students, where they can be assigned projects and also submit them upon completion, if they are not able to visit the school, said Dayal.
“We have had to move to Vasai, the northern end of the city; travelling to Goregaon every semester to submit Deepa’s final assignments has been an ordeal, and with local trains being closed for regular citizens, the commute is inconvenient and expensive,” she added.
Email can provide a direct channel of communication to children for one-on-one interaction with their teacher. Saurabh Deshpande, a teacher at DSRV school said, “Even though the current situation calls for virtual learning, it is important for children to feel welcome and nurtured in class. However, this may sometimes be compromised due to the virtual format. Keeping an open channel, even in the form of emails, can work wonders for student-teacher relationships’
Teachers should be trained in child psychology and interactive teaching techniques so that they are able to engage students even in these virtual classrooms and make studying fun for them, said Deshpande. “Since the inception of online learning, we have had multiple workshops arranged by the Maharashtra Board and our school; how to keep classes interactive, how to boost conceptual learning among students were some of the topics covered,” he added.
He also suggested more investment in workshops by municipal schools and revision of the curriculum to cater to the current situation.
Promotion to the next class
In view of the many challenges faced by students, schools have eased the criteria to be promoted to the next year, keeping it at the bare minimum. Timely assignment submissions and class participation are enough for a child to be promoted.
“When the results were announced, I noticed three students were promoted to the next class, under the Right to Education Act, despite not submitting assignments or attending school,” said Pratishtha’s mother. She voiced her worry for these children, who she believes will have a hard time coping with studies in the years to come if schools continue to promote them to higher levels without actually making sure of what they have learnt.