Schools are opening, challenges remain
Taking a cue from some other parts of the country, the government in J&K finally decided to throw educational institutions open here, in a phased manner — between February 21 to 28 — amid the strict adherence to the Covid Standard Operating Procedure (SOPs).
With this, as many as 13800 schools in the Valley — both private and government-run — with the approximate roll of 1.3 million students, would resume offline mode of education after being closed for more than two and a half years, with some exceptional irregular days of schooling.
According to a recent United Nations (UN) report, India, after Uganda, had the longest COVID-19 pandemic-linked school closure in the world. The UN report has estimated that the schools in India were shut for 82 weeks until October last year, and since then, they have opened intermittently.
In Kashmir, however, the school closure period has been longest than any part of the country, as the educational institutions remained closed for about six months due to the lockdown following the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019. They were thrown open for a brief period and then the Covid lockdown was imposed across India in March 2020. Since then, the offline mode of education has remained suspended completely.
Although the stakeholders — students, parents, teachers, school managements, and so on — are delighted with the government decision about the reopening of schools, some experts say that reopening process will not be that smooth. They say, with the resuming of schooling after such a long gap, all the stakeholders have to face their own set of challenges.
To understand these challenges, KASHMIR IMAGES spoke to some experts and concerned people.
Here are the excerpts:
Almost all private schools in the Valley have been grappling with huge losses for three constant years — 2019, 2020 & 2021. For instance, the transport fleets have drained out most of these schools financially.
To keep a bus intact and able to restart, the owner has to spend up to two lakh rupees a year. Now imagine, a school has ten buses that have been inactive for more than two years, and yet, the owner had to pay huge amounts on maintenance of these vehicles. They had to repay bank loans with interest, insurance premiums, taxes, salaries to the drivers, and so forth. This sums up a huge amount.
As if this financial burden on private schools was not enough, some parents have not been able to clear the fees of their wards, resulting in the piling up of their dues during the past more than two years.
Worst, the administration has thrown government-run schools open for free admission — the newcomers to these schools do not even need to show the leaving certificate from their previous schools. Availing the offer, some parents who have not cleared the dues and still owe private schools huge amounts, have shifted their kids to nearby government schools. Pushing the private schools further to the wall, the government has imposed a ban on admission fees from last year. This has enhanced our financial woes further.
Clearly, private schools have to continue to face financial crises when they reopen after such a long disturbance. Unfortunately, a notion is out there that private schools are looters. But, I would say that only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches. Only the owners of these schools know how tough the situation they have been facing for the past more than two years. To conclude, let me tell you that the reopening will not be that smooth for private schools unless the government realizes the situation and comes with a helping hand.
The schools in the Valley have been closed precisely for the past 2.7 years (31 months). They were closed due to the summer vacation before the six-month-long lockdown was imposed post-August 5, 2019. And, then, the longest closure started with the Covid lockdown in March 2020.
The protracted closure caused tremendous losses to the private schools, mainly because their transport remained frozen during all this time. The transport fleets of schools proved to be the proverbial ‘white elephants’ for them. The government did not even bother to waive off the taxes and the document updation charges.
It will not be an exaggeration to say that 99 percent of private schools in the Valley are grappling with the enormous losses. Some schools have closed down permanently. In Srinagar’s Zaldagar zone, for instance, as many as 17 private schools closed their business during the past two years. And, about 200 schools across the Valley are on the verge of shutting down because the owners of these schools cannot afford constant losses. Even if some of them try to continue, they will not be able to provide quality education to the students.
Apart from dealing with the financial crisis, the private schools have also to face some other challenges once they reopen. First, they have to coup up with learning gaps that the students have had during the past more than two years. The National Independent Schools Alliance (NISA) in its survey has found up to 84 percent of learning loss to the students due to the closure of the schools. Bridging these learning gaps would be a great challenge to schools, mostly because the given administrative structure has left them with fewer options. For instance, they, unlike the schools in the rest of the country, are not even allowed to utilize their infrastructure for remedial classes. Private schools are not permitted to provide their buildings to coaching canters for integrated coaching. It troubles us that the government looks at the schools through an administrative prism only.
Second, gauging the grade capability of the students would be another challenge for the schools. Since students have passed classes through online exams since 2019, all of them would not be capable enough to coup up with the syllabus, when taught in offline classes.
Sadly, the government did not bother to talk about these issues before announcing the reopening of the educational institutions. It did not even take private schools, which cater to about seven lakh (more than 50 percent) school students in the Valley, into confidence while announcing the reopening.
Although the principal secretary to government school education had fixed dates for the meetings with the private school association twice during the past four months, none of the meetings was actually convened due to some reasons. We are still waiting for the meeting with higher-ups so that we could bring the issues facing private schools to their notice and seek some help.
We are enthusiastic about the reopening of the schools but at the same time, we realize the fact that dealing with the students, who might have lost the school discipline and developed some behavioral problems, would be a big challenge for us while restarting the offline mode of schooling.
We have decided to take care of the emotional state of mind of the kids. We understand that some of them might be in a depressed state of mind and also struggling with laziness. And, to ensure students do not feel too much pressure with the reopening of schools, we will have to handle every aspect of schooling delicately.
For this, we will try to inculcate moral studies and extracurricular activities, instead of having a hasty focus on routine curriculum. Also, we have decided to emphasize on practical studies than the writing process. And, instead of going for rote learning, which sometimes pressurizes a child, we will introduce practical classes for all the subjects to make things easy and productive for the students. Then, we will try to make our school a Green School so that students can be kept busy with the activities. For the students of lower primary classes, we are going to introduce several programmes to keep them joyful.
Once everything gets streamlined, and the students start getting comfortable with offline schooling, we will begin focusing on bridging the learning gaps that were created by the protracted closure of the school.
The Fees Fixation Committee has a limited role, and that is to regulate the school fee and to ensure no school violates the set norms in this regard. We have almost completed the fee fixation process for all schools for the current year.
That said, I have come to know that some parents due to their business or job losses caused by the pandemic have not been able to pay the fee of their wards and the dues have accumulated into huge amounts. I have no legal authority to look into such cases. However, in some cases, I have been playing the role of a mediator, wherein I request concerned schools to be gentle with the parents who have really suffered monetary losses due to the situation caused by the pandemic.
For instance, last year, a flower seller from the Jammu region, who is ailing from a terminal disease came to me and informed me that the overdue school fee of his children has accumulated up to 75 thousand rupees. He was in no position to pay the amount because he had no income. He wanted to shift his kids to a government school to avail the free education for them, but was unable to get the previous school leaving certificate without paying the balance amount. I contacted the chairperson of the concerned school and requested him to look into the matter sympathetically. He was kind enough to remit the entire balance amount. This, however, was an exceptional case. We cannot expect every school do the same in every case.
I have observed that the managements of the private schools are always ready to lend a helping hand to the poor parents who are really in a bad situation. They ensure that the education of a student does not suffer just because his or her parents have not been able to pay the fee on time. All such cases must be tackled carefully and amicably by the concerned parents and the schools. Parents also must realize that schools have huge expenditures and their existence is based on income through fees.
The students have suffered a huge loss due to the closure of the schools for quite a long time. However, we need to take the cue from a line by renowned romantic poet P.B. Shelley, who said, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”, or can refer to old Kashmiri saying “Wande Tzale, Sheen Gali Beyi Yi Bahaar” (winter will flee, snow will melt, spring will make its presence felt again). We must rejuvenate to compensate for the learning gaps that have occurred due to the suspension of offline mode education. For this, we have to convince our children that they are born intelligent. We have to encourage them so that they will look forward, not backwards.
Also, we have to move from the theoretical approach of teaching to an analytical and more reasonable approach to teaching. Our teachers have to bring a paradigm shift in traditional teaching. The government has already taken initiatives in terms of teacher training programs to enable teachers to overcome the new challenges. Private institutions also must tie up with government institutions to avail the modern teacher training facilities. Now, we require effective teaching so that the learning gaps are bridged.
School resuming after more than two years, might prove traumatic for some children and cause emotional vulnerability. Thus, to keep them motivated, the parents and teachers should be able to deal with these kids with care and love.
They must know that all children, particularly the young ones who had got admitted just before the schools were closed down more than two years ago, will not be receptive to the change — resuming offline classes. They have become familiar and comfortable only with the online mode of education during all this time and they know their teachers only through the screens.
Most of the kids have become attached to the screens. They have forgotten about the offline classes and peer group interactions — the real world, because for more than two years they have been spending most of their time with online classes and playing games on the gadgets.
Therefore, facing offline classes might not be, initially, that comfortable for them. Some of these little kids might feel strange anxieties in real classrooms. They will take a little longer to get adjusted to the school environment, and, thus the teachers and the parents have to be competent enough to deal with the emotional fragility of these kids.
Even some adolescent students, who had a routine to go to the school earlier, might have got some behavioral changes during all this time. This age group also needs to be taken care of by teachers because some of these students can get irritated by spending long hours in the class rooms. Breaking the routine of staying home, and now suddenly facing the offline classes may trigger anxiety episodes. They might be reluctant to change. I am afraid that most of the parents might have to deal with the temper tantrums of their children after the schools are reopened. The parents have to have deal with such children with love and care. They should try to spend more time with their children, before they leave for school and after they return home.
Similarly, bunking the schools by some students can be a new phenomenon that the school managements might have to face for some time. I would suggest that schools must focus on extracurricular activities more than the curriculum activities, at least for the first month after schools are reopened.
Most importantly, schools must engage councilors who could keep an eye on the vulnerable students and cater to their emotional needs. Although, as per the New Education Policy (NEP), placing a councilor is an obligation to every school, it has become a necessity in post-Covid schooling.