Schooling in the times of pandemic
Schools in Kashmir will be opening on March 01 after a long gap of 19 months. Students, parents, teachers – all are thrilled but apprehensive too. Thrill is that students and teachers will be where they should have been. And the apprehension is that are our educational institutions comfortably equipped to maintain Covid-19 SOPs.
Students, parents, and other stakeholders seem to be feeling a little bit apprehensive, yet delighted, on the government’s decision to reopen schools in the Valley for academic activities on March 1, after a prolonged closure.
Apprehensive – because they fear whether the school managements would be able to follow all COVID -19 Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for the safety of the kids or not. Delighted – because finally, the long disconnect between students and schools is coming to an end.
The central government had allowed the reopening of schools from September 21, 2020, but had asked the states and UTs to take the final depending on the Covid related situation in respective regions.
However, unlike the rest of the country, or for that matter, other parts of the world, Kashmir has an entirely different story regarding the closure of the educational institutions.
In the Valley, schools were first closed because of the post-August 2019 situation, then due to the three-month-long winter vacation and the subsequent Covid outbreak.
Though the government had announced the reopening of the educational institution in October 2019, most parents did not send their wards to the schools due to the unrest at that time, resulting in a thin or zero attendance in the schools.
Anyhow, as everyone prepares for a fresh start, approximately 14 lakh students — from both private and public education sectors — are expected to come out from their homes to go to schools across the valley on March 1.
Since the Covid pandemic is still around and given the weak healthcare structure — with no trauma response system — in Kashmir, it would be a big challenge for the stakeholders here to ensure that all the necessary protocols and precautionary measures are adopted for the safety of these students.
Similarly, schools that do not have sufficient infrastructure to ensure physical distancing of students will have to make alternative arrangements such as conducting classes in shifts. Also, it is not yet confirmed whether the government will provide these schools, with appurtenances like thermometers, hand sanitizers, and other disinfecting devices or not. A large number of underprivileged schools across the valley, especially hundreds of those run by Falah-e-Aam trusts, waqfs, or Mohalla committees would be in dire need of these things.
Kashmir Images, while delving into the overall situation about the reopening of the schools, found that most of the private schools are grappling with multiple problems, ranging from financial to psychological issues of the stakeholders. Currently, the administration is trying to sort out the transportation problem with the school management after they recently asked parents to arrange a to-and-fro transport facility for their wards. They claimed that they are facing financial hardship and hence are not in a position to make their vehicles up to date.
To have a holistic view of the situation, we spoke to several people who are directly or indirectly involved with schooling system and have a say in the matter.
Re-opening schools for academic purposes after such a long time is fraught with many challenges for all. These challenges could have been eased if the Education Department had taken the private schools on board while making the decision. But, despite being one of the major players in the education system, the private schools were never included in the decision making process.
In any case, it will be a big challenge for the teachers and the school management to ensure a smooth restart and get a grip on the students because it is a universally acknowledged fact that if a child is out of school for three months in a year, his or her tendency to come back decreases by seventy percent. In our case, the students have been out of school since August 2019, so they may have gone through several behavioral changes during that time. Especially the young children in the lower classes have missed the valuable time when they were supposed to be groomed, tamed and disciplined in schools. The paradigm shifts in society, especially during the Covid, also affected their young minds.
Due to all these unusual situations, ironically, all the students have passed the classes without seeing the door of the schools throughout this period, which eventually have affected the teaching-learning process. On the other hand, the students at home did not have the same opportunities to receive an online education. Though many of them had broadband internet connection at home, but most of them were depended only on 2G speed internet. Some of them had neither internet service nor smartphones to be benefitted from online mode of education. For all these reasons and since we have made forty percent syllabus curtailment, I am afraid that our students will not be able to compete with the national and international level examinations in the future if the loss is not compensated.
Clearly, it is a big challenge for schools to start afresh and provide all these students with the quality education they need, especially for private schools that are already struggling with many other problems.
One of the most serious problems facing private schools is their financial distress, because, most parents were unable to pay fees of their children due to the lockdowns, during past more than one and a half year. Not only that, the transport fleet of private schools has turned into white elephant during this time. The schools are constantly paying taxes and maintenance costs of the vehicles and paying salaries to the drivers and conductors without zero revenue.
Furthermore, the financial hardship has rendered these schools incapable of investing in things like research and development (R&D), hybrid online/offline facilities and teacher training – the most important elements for a contemporary and quality education system.
The solution to most of these problems lies with the government. In these challenging times, the public and private education sectors need to join hands and work together in the areas of R&D and teacher training. Even compatibility in curriculum can be created by working together. Similarly, they can help the poor parents by providing them money for the education of their children under various child and social welfare schemes like Children Education Allowance (CEA) provided to the government employees.
We have already informed the government about the financial plight of private schools. Even a proposal about our request was sent to the Lieutenant Governor (LG) in April last year, and we were told that a committee headed by LG’s advisor Rajeev Rai Bhatnagar will be formed to look into the matter. However, nothing has happened so far.
Peoples’ concern about the various problems associated with the reopening of schools is genuine; however, we must understand the fact that we have to resume normal school operations in any case, simply because we cannot afford a further loss in the education sector. Secondly, the Covid- related situation has improved drastically if available data is to be believed and it is also a fact that other institutions of public life have already resumed their daily routine. This situation further encourages us to resume normal school operations as well.
However, there are indications that the government did not fully prepare before announcing the reopening of schools, especially in terms of sanitization and transportation for the children. I have with me some recently taken photographs showing the pathetic condition of washrooms in some schools in the valley. Since schools are reopening after months of closure, the government should have ensured that facilities are available in all schools.
As far as transportation is concerned, some schools may not be able to transport their students as they used to due to certain reasons. In that case, students will have to rely on the public transport system, which is in a pathetic state as far as Covid SOP compliance is concerned.
Also, I fear that the schools that outsource student transportation will not be able to ensure social distancing in the outsourced vehicles.
That said, I want to reiterate that come what may, we must resume normal school operations and for that, we must be ready to face the challenges. Let the schools reopen and let life go on.
The Government of Jammu and Kashmir launched its first-ever comprehensive School Safety Program on COVID-19 in August 2020, and ‘ELFA International’ has been part of this project from the beginning. In the first phase, we worked in 45 schools in four districts of UT —Kupwara, Baramullah, Doda and Jammu— in collaboration with the Department of School Education and Samagra Shiksha (an overarching program for school education). We have prepared these schools with all the essential and required services for the mid and post-pandemic period so that the reopening of school can be done safely and securely.
In addition to training students, teachers, and parents in safety measures, we installed equipment such as pedal-controlled hand washing stations, sanitary dispensers and incinerators. At each model school, we erected hoarding and posters with the guidelines of COVID SoPs and other relevant messages for the safety of the students and staff of these schools.
The main purpose of the project was to orient, sensitize and train the stakeholders before reopening the schools during the pandemic period. In accordance with the project, ELFA has been constantly advocating with the government to replicate these models in rest of the schools.
As part of the School Safety Program, we worked on key components such as COVID-19 Infection Protection Control (IPC), Disaster Risk Reduction, Child Protection and Menstrual Hygiene Management. Our trainers went to the community level of these schools to train the teachers, students and parents even during the lockdown period and the concerned departments extended full support and cooperation to make the project successful. From August to December last year, we imparted the necessary safety training to as many as 18360 students.
Since the beginning of 2021, ELFA has been continuing its advocacy around safe school reopening and has participated in virtual sessions to orient and sensitive heads of institutions in COVID SOPs. Efforts are also underway to provide technical support to the Department of School Education in making schools safer.
It is painful that salary cuts have forced many private school teachers and drivers to leave their jobs while some of them were asked to quit by the managements during the pandemic. I have been saying this for years that some of the private schools are behaving like a mafia. The owners of these schools have created empires for themselves while treating the teachers and other staff in their schools like bonded labors. Tell me this, if a teacher, driver or any other employee of a private school does not have a share in the owner’s profits, why should they share the losses, if at all, in times of crisis. These school owners have been earning for years, why can’t they bear losses for a year and provide their employees the full salary?
I don’t have any sympathy with these teachers either, for their cowardice. These well educated young boys and girls have been getting exploited by their owners but they don’t raise their voice. If they will not fight for their rights, who else will? They should get united and start demanding the implementation of Minimum Wages Act. It really hurts me to see these teachers getting over aged while working under the ruthless owners and letting these ‘education mafia dons’ to exploit them. If I were twenty years younger, I would take to the streets and protest this exploitation. I have fought for the rights of workers and common people all my life. But, now I am an 85 year old man, thus, helpless. I am, however, astonished on the silence of government on this issue. How did the government let these school owners to force some of the teachers and drivers to quit jobs are going for huge salary cuts? Where is labor commissioner and why don’t he intervene in this issue?
Since, schools are being reopened now; government must make sure that the teachers, drivers and other staff members of these private schools get their jobs and full salaries are restored.
Unlike the rest of the world, reopening the schools in Kashmir is going to be a more challenging and stressful job for all stakeholders, including students, parents, and teachers, because our students did not get disconnected from the schools just because of the pandemic outbreak. They had already lost this connection due to the post August, 2019 occurrences with subsequent hardships. They saw turmoil and a blanket ban on internet services for a long time. As a practicing psychologist, I can tell you that these students went through trauma during all this time.
Due to the Covid, they saw death occurring here and there, and living with masks, sanitizers, frequent hand washing, maintaining distances and other SOPs have affected the already vulnerable minds of these youngsters. Now, after the schools are reopened, adjusting to the new normal is going to be further stressful for them, causing various kinds of psychological issues, depending on the age group.
For an example, a five or six-year child who was supposed to be educated in a school for the last two years relied only on online education and adopted it successfully and now the same child has to switch to offline mode of education. It will be a challenging task for him and also for his teachers and parents.
Adolescent students will have their own set of problems after they resume schooling afresh with Covid SOPs. Many of them are already in trouble due to their psychological trauma and stressful life. This is also one of the reasons why we have seen an escalation of substance abuse in this age group in the last two years.
Similarly, teachers are grappling with their own kind of personal and professional problems caused by unprecedented situations. After all, they too are human beings. Many of them lost jobs or, at the very least, have had to take pay cuts since schools were closed down.
Parents also lost touch with their children’s normal school routines, in terms of carrying out their responsibilities. Some of them have not been able to pay school fees for their wards due to the constant lockdowns and now there are amounts long due for them to pay.
In this scenario, I strongly believe that government should have arranged school-wise and generalized counselling for students, teachers, and parents before announcing the reopening of the schools, because the mental stability of these stakeholders is of utmost importance for a stable educational system. We cannot have a quality product of education system if the students and teachers, even the parents do not have good mental stability.
Without this kind of preparation, the reopening of the schools will surely be disastrous. I know you are going to write all this in just a few lines but believe me; this is a massive issue and needs a sincere consideration.