Pandemic has added to the trauma and suffering of students in Kashmir
COVID-19, besides all other areas of life, has badly hit the education sector in most parts of the world. In Kashmir, however, the education sector had already begun to suffer greatly much before the Covid started to spread in March this year. Our schools, colleges, and other educational institutions were first closed in August last year when New Delhi abruptly changed the status of J&K. Since then, our educational institutions have completely closed, along with a ban (earlier a blanket ban, now partial) on the Internet, which is considered the most important source of education in this modern era.
To understand how much loss in terms of their education our students have suffered as a result of the pandemic and political uncertainty, and whether the loss is compensable or not, Kashmir Images spoke to many professionals and experts. They say that the situation that has been prevailing for more than a year now has not only harmed the studies of the children but has also affected their emotional and mental health. Additionally, the constant lockdowns have taken toll on the financial system of the private educational institutions as well.
It is the fact that the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has tremendously affected every sphere of life world-over, be it health-care, economy, jobs, survival, and education certainly is no exception. The lockdown leading to a complete closure of educational institutions at all levels hampered the normal education system automatically. The mode of education shifted from offline to online systems to minimize the loss of studies. It was a good decision but the weak Internet services could not match up, with the result students got completely disinterested and demotivated.
This new method of the education was reduced to a mere gimmick where teachers failed to inspire the students to join online classes. This new normal of the education is no way a replacement to the normal education system where students enter into their institutions mentally and physically and are under the total impact and supervision of the teachers. The teachers’ help students enter into the process of curriculum aimed at mental and personality development.
It is a paradox that we are completely unaware of the reality to see the end of this global crisis which means that we will have to continue with this new normal. As a teacher, I would suggest that we should take this ‘new model’ of the education as a new facet for our students to come at par with counterparts in the developed nations. It is seen that on-line classes are an integral part of the overall education system. The students are encouraged to join online classes, and also to draw from the available resources recorded e-content. Such material is taken as a key to different projects and individual initiatives to be taken up by the students. This process is free of time constraints and partly the Internet connectivity as well – because the material once downloaded, could be stored and shared through pen-drives and other such storage devices, which increases its access to the students. However, it should not be taken as an alternative to normal processes, but a parallel support to reinforce independence and individual confidence among the students.
First of all, I would make a disclaimer that I do not consider myself as an expert on any issue. But having remained associated with education for a long time, I do have an opinion on the subject.
There is no doubt that the Covid pandemic has impacted our entire education system. However, I think our higher education did not suffer only because of the pandemic this year, or due to what happened after August 05 last year. In higher education, there are many deep-rooted problems as well. I will not go into history. Let me start from 2016 only.
In that year, Kashmir University introduced and implemented the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) along with a semester system at the undergraduate level. However, this new system was badly disrupted at its inception, because of the situation that occurred in 2016. In 2017, everything else was fine but the college education got affected because of what happened in Pulwama Degree College that year (in mid-April 2017, student protests and clash erupted in Government Degree College Pulwama, leaving dozens of students injured as the forces had entered the college premises). All other colleges across the Valley were closed down after the Pulwama college incident, affecting studies.
The year 2018 was almost normal but what happened in 2019 and this year is in front of all of us.
If we talk of higher education, it has not got impacted just because of the pandemic this year; it has been getting hits since 2014, when the devastating deluge hit most parts of the Valley. Since then we have been unsuccessfully trying to compensate for the losses to the studies and the education system. Now we are in a situation where I think the students, who graduate from our colleges with three-year degrees or after the completion of the 5-year education, are actually raw. There may be some exceptions but overall our college and university pass-outs of the past few years are raw.
There are some other problems as well. We do not follow timelines about semesters. Take example of this year: pandemic hit us in mid-March; we were supposed to complete the admissions in colleges before March, but the fact is our admission process got completed by October. We should have completed our admission processes much before the Covid started spreading here. Universities are forced to extend these timelines every year because of the protests by the students.
We are not well prepared for providing online education as well. Neither our teachers are trained for this nor do they have the equipments available. Even all the students do not have the required smart phones. This means that even if high-speed Internet facility is restored, we will not be able to get benefited from it. We have so many challenges here. I am not talking about the New Education Policy yet. This will come with another set of problems for our higher education. That is why I say that it is not the pandemic alone that has damaged our higher education system; there are several other problems as well. We have to do a lot to resolve the issues.
Pandemic has created a challenge in terms of educational loss and its impact on the mental health of children and adolescents across the world. However, our case is entirely different and more serious. To understand our situation, we need to look at this issue through its real perspective. Our kids have not had a normal growth in the context of the Kashmir situation. The worst is that the parents or caregivers, who are looking after this generation of kids, have themselves been carrying a huge burden of negative emotions with them. It is a complex situation and it cannot be generalized with what has happened in the rest of the world due to the Covid-19.
What happened in August 2019 has created a state of insecurity and a collective sense of loss. Elders and the school- and college-going students suffered from this feeling because human beings are connected. It is a scientifically-proven reality. This human connectedness starts from a family, then enhances up to a ‘Mohalla’ and then to a village. When we consider the entire situation from this perspective, the severity of the situation and the level of the damage can be understood.
Education is something which has changed over a while. The pattern of education, which was there for about three centuries abruptly changed with virtual kind of things. All this change occurred in the past two decades. The human connectedness has shifted from face-to-face kind of contact with a virtual connection for everybody. But, in the Kashmir context, the developmental phases for the children were different. When they started their growth, different parts of their brains grew disproportionately.
To understand this, we must know that every child, over a period, develops a kind of software to run his or her physical body, based on his/her experiences. By the age of six or seven, the child is supposed to imbibe the codes of conduct. This process is a continuous one until the child reaches the age of 18. Then, a transitory period of a human being starts. In the adolescent period, hormonal changes, physical changes, and sociological perception changes occur. In their adolescent age children develop a desire to exist as independent and they become a little defined. Under normal and peaceful situations, the adolescents grow to be resilient and a productive kind of end product.
But in Kashmir, this has not been true. There is a lot of stress among the individuals and in the overall community because of what has been happening here. Now, due to the pandemic, everybody got caged suddenly. And its consequences started reflecting in parents, in teachers and all other people around. All these things led to physical disruption to educational activities. The disruption has proven damaging, rather devastating for many of our vulnerable children. It has left the scars too.
Schools play an anchoring role for the kids. They put children and youth in a disciplined and systematized kind of operation. After a few months, post-August 2019, we were expecting reopening of schools, and restoration of normal life — a kind of healing process. But it didn’t happen because of Covid-19. On the contrary, earlier the threat was only limited to a place where we lived and surrounding areas, but this time (in a pandemic), the threat extended to the whole world. In a child kind of perception, the world has become all the more dangerous. Insecurity has further increased. All this has impacted the minds of our children and this will draw long-term results. In future, many of these youngsters will cry for help with their negative kind of behavior.
Here is the role of everybody. Be it a parent, a teacher or others who are around. To attend these needs in a larger framework, the government also needs to put a system in place which would at least address these additional burdens that these children have been suffering. All of us owe it to these children and youngsters. We need to put certain things in place, like the earlier societies, oriental and traditional societies used to do. We do have an inbuilt mechanism in our community and society to tackle stress and mental health problems. Those methods need to be operational. We have to rebuild the ‘face-to-face’ connectivity instead of relying on the gadgets which lead us to virtual connectivity. We all have to help each other and take care of the younger generation. In these circumstances, everybody has to play a role.
Let’s go a few steps back to human collectiveness. I mean 40-50 years back when we used to have our inherent mechanism and collectiveness. Now we have been trying to fantasize the gadgets and projecting them as a replacement to the earlier human relations. It does not work in the circumstances we are in. There is a lot of work that has to be done and it would have to be done at sea level. At present, we are facing a crisis, social crisis, economic crisis, and psychological crisis. All these crises need to be handled — we must work coherently and collectively. No one party or one stakeholder can force his or her perception. People should exchange thoughts, ideas, and policies and then put services in place; that is the way to can handle these crises and help the younger generation, which is going to replace all of us in future.
The only way to compensate for the loss our students have suffered due to closure of schools for such a long time, is our perseverance and hard-work. Be it school management, teachers, parents, and most importantly the students, we all must cooperate with each other.
At our school, we are all set to restart with a strong resolve. We have already applied for permission to start coaching for the 8th, 9th, and 10th classes this month. If the government allows, we will start from December 15, indeed with the COVID-19 precautionary measures in place.
We have decided to resume coaching because they are the crucial classes. Online teaching does not benefit 9th and 10th class students much. Secondly, we do not want to keep the students busy with phones all the time. Presently, we are taking only three online classes a day for lower classes, with intervals. Our teachers also send homework to students through WhatsApp. However, we have observed that many students do not pay heed to the online classes. Some of them leave mobile phones aside and go away while the classes are on. Here comes the responsibility of the parents. Parents need to take it very seriously. We suggest the parents must be present in the room as long as the kids complete their online classes. The 2G speed is presently the biggest hindrance in the smooth functioning of online classes.
The pandemic lockdown and the situation that occurred after August 05 last year have halted pre-schooling in Kashmir, for more than a year now.
The grown-up children can get back and compensate for their educational loss by dint of hard-work. However, the kids who did not have the chance to spend time in the preschools did actually miss the bus; they have passed the preschool going age (3-5 years). Child development experts worldwide say that pre-schooling helps kids of this age group to enhance their mental development. In preschools, the kids become habitual to be away from the lap of their parents for few hours, which eventually help them to explore a feeling of self and provides them the required social and emotional development, and strength.
We were in mid-session in August last year when the lockdown was imposed here; and when we were about to resume, the Covid outbreak halted everything again. The worst is that our future plans too are up in air at this time.
The impact of two constant lockdowns —post-August 05, and pandemic lockdown— has not impacted only the studies of the students but it has also damaged the institutions of education as well.
First of all, let me explain that schools in Kashmir were closed much before the August 05 last year. They were closed on April 04 last year for summer vacations. After the vacations, when schools were about to be reopened, panic gripped the entire Valley with rumors speeding throughout that ‘something untoward’ was going to occur. Nobody knew that Article 370 and 35-A were going to be abrogated; but everybody had an idea that something problematic was about to happen. So it must be kept in mind that our schools were not closed on August 05 last year but had already been closed on April 04 due to the summer vacations.
Post-August lockdown continued for months, following which the government announced reopening of schools, but parents were reluctant to send their kids to schools because of the bad situation. Soon after winter vacations were announced. Then, Covid started spreading.
Our schools are continuously closed down for the past 18 months. This cannot be compared with the closure of educational institutions due to the Covid lockdown outside Kashmir. Our story is entirely different. In the ongoing pandemic, students across the world are successfully studying online, but in our part of the world, our kids do not have the high-speed Internet facility available here. Our schools could not provide training to the teacher for an online teaching system due to lack of proper Internet facilities.
Education is an evolving process. It changes every hour. In normal situations, private schools update their system on a regular basis, but since the Internet was completely banned for several months, these schools could not update their systems of teaching. In fact, all of our schools are disrupted at this time. Parents are not paying the fees of their wards as the lockdowns have impacted the economic conditions of many of them. As the result, many schools are not able to pay the salaries to the staff. A large number of teachers who did not get salaries went for alternative livelihood arrangements. This situation has completely disrupted the schooling system across Kashmir.
Unfortunately, the authorities, instead of helping institutions out in these tough times, created confusion by issuing circulars about the fees and other issues, causing rifts between the school management and the parents. In all this chaos ‘parents associations’ were formed and some of the parents started fighting with school administrations. I think the situation we have been facing for the past 18 months has damaged private schools to a large extent. The sanctity of our educational institution has been affected.
In August 2019, we had as many as 2710 private schools across the Valley. But more than two hundred of them have permanently closed down because they could not sustain these harsh conditions. Many schools are being sold out. The owners are selling their schools. As per my information about 250 schools are up for sale right now.
In the post-August situation, the government could have helped the schools through different child welfare schemes. Even now the government can do a lot to help these institutions. Government employees get monthly Rs 2450 each as a child education allowance. Let the government provide the same amount to the poor parents as well, so that they will be able to pay the school fees of their wards. Eventually, this will help the schools.