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Vol. XXX No. 7, August 1-15, 2020

Schooling in the ‘New Normal’ – Part 1

by A Staff Correspondent

Life has changed so much over the past few months that it is getting rather hard to recall the city’s sights and sounds from pre-pandemic days. A sight that we have missed is that of children going to school. It’s always a delight to see them packed off to learn new things, wearing neatly pressed uniforms and well-shined shoes. It was in March that the administration first instructed that children were to forego school attendance in view of the pandemic; now August is upon us and, with the situation remaining unclear, educational institutions continue to keep their gates shut. Keen to ensure that kids don’t lose touch with their studies, the city’s schools have been pushing the envelope to reach the children under their wing. “Like doctors and public servants, education has also been quietly working behind the scenes through the pandemic,” says Nikhath Suhail, Treasurer at the MWA Matriculation Higher Secondary School. “We are unsung heroes.”

Her words are shorn of self-praise; she’s simply stating a fact. Schools and teachers across the city have been putting in gruelling hours to enable children to study even through the lockdown. On one hand, there’s the practical necessity to complete the allotted syllabus, especially for children due to appear for public exams; they don’t have the luxury of waiting till the schools reopen, because there are portions to cover. On the other hand, schools like Nikhath’s, which work with children from economically weaker sections of society, must double their efforts to keep in touch with the students lest they drop out. “In schools like ours, parents tend to have the older children take up jobs instead of sitting idle. We don’t want to lose our students and have them drop out of the system,” explained Radha Vasudevan, whose school in Ashok Nagar caters to working class parents.

And so, schools across the spectrum have turned to technology to bridge the learning gap. The teachers quickly learned to leverage digital mediums to deliver lessons effectively. WhatsApp has been particularly helpful; it’s probably the most ubiquitous piece of technology out there, given that most households have access to at least one smartphone with the software downloaded on it. Schools cleverly used the platform to deliver lessons to the children, along with exercise worksheets where needed. They gradually made the transition to video conferencing software like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, partnering with educational companies like XSEED to deliver study material to the children. Notably, the special education department at the MWA Matriculation Higher Secondary School is working with the Madras Dyslexia Association to deliver online educational programs to their students as well.

Kalpalatha Mohan, school principal of Sri Sankara Vidyashramam Matriculation Higher Secondary School, admits that the learning curve was challenging. “We spent nearly 10 days sending lessons to each other and checking whether we were okay. Wherever we could help each other with suggestions, we did,” she said. “The CBSE has done a tremendous job in helping teachers through this time,” pointed out Mita Venkatesh, the school principal of Sri Sankara Senior Secondary School. “They have published a number of online courses which help keep us updated,” she said. 34 teachers on her staff have already attended relevant courses to upskill themselves.

Surprisingly, setting up digital learning systems doesn’t seem to be the hardest part of delivering lessons in the lockdown. The problems that continue to crop up are practical ones. Take the availability of smartphones, for instance. While it hasn’t been a big issue for schools like Mita’s or Kalpalatha’s, Nikhath and Radha have had to help parents procure smartphones to give children access to the lessons. “If a household has more than two children, where does the additional phone come from?” asked Nikhath. “I have a family with three children, one in grade 9, one in grade 7, and a little one in grade 4. The grade 4 child feels she is just as important as the others; she wants to study too, but she doesn’t have a phone.” Nikhath’s school offered parents a subsidy of Rs. 2000 to help them buy phones for their children, while Radha has distributed phones to children in need. They each achieved this largely with the support of public donations, which has been generously flowing in to support the schools.

Access to phones is just one part of the problem; technical issues and glitches tend to play spoilsport, too. “They don’t get signals half the time and the parents tend to take on low bandwidth plans which make it hard to follow lessons online. Power cuts also complicate the matter,” pointed out Nikhath. The additional cost of data consumption is also a barrier, with some parents finding it hard to afford the expense in these tough times. Teachers are realizing the need to ensure that study material is available despite these issues. “My teachers are recording their lessons and the material is stored on Google Drive,” explained Kalpalatha. “This way, the video is available whenever the child needs it.” Going the extra mile, her class teachers also personally call the children at least once a month to ensure that the children are continuing their studies through the Covid break.

Teachers are also finding it hard to engage the children outside the traditional classroom setting. Online modes of instruction don’t make it easy for teachers to observe the students; all they see is a grid of faces and not even that on a smartphone. “It’s hard to understand if the child is actually paying attention,” said Mita. It’s also hard to gauge if the child is grasping the concept that is being taught in an online class. “If a child gives a blank look in the classroom, it’s easier to catch that and make a mental note that the child needs more help. It’s practically impossible to do that online,” explained Nikhath. To tackle this issue, schools have begun to enlist parents for help. “I try to hold meetings with parents to get them on board, to help ensure that the child is present and attentive during the online classes,” said Mita.

And then of course, we must remember that we’re talking about children – all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Cooped up at home, most of the kids don’t have access to open playing spaces, and are missing the camaraderie of school life. Nikhath particularly worries about this aspect. “The whole day is spent either on the TV or on the phone. Kids have lost their sense of interaction which is a very serious issue,” she fretted. The administration seems to share her concern – in July, the HRD ministry released detailed guidelines regarding online classes, capping maximum screen time for children at three hours a day. So schools have come up with innovative activities to engage the kids off-screen as well.

“For the primary classes, grades 4 and 5, we had the kids send their class teachers a record of the household chores that they helped out with during the week,” said Kalpalatha, giving an example of one such initiative. “We suggested a few activities like folding clothes, washing vegetables, helping store items etc. These are life lessons, too.” Her school is also working on resuming non-academic activities for children, such as the heritage club. Other schools have also made an effort to offer yoga, dance and art to children through digital mediums. It is an important dimension to their education, especially at a time when children are deprived of social interaction and physical stimulus. Further, to ensure that they are not estranged by the time normalcy returns, schools are determinedly delivering lessons created in the teachers’ own voices. This way, the children hold onto a sense of familiarity with the teacher through his/her voice and teaching style, hopefully making the learning transition easier.

On a pleasant note, Mita and Radha both pointed out the silver lining in the whole situation. “We all knew that technology had great potential, but we have never relied so much on it until now. So, it’s a learning opportunity. We must see how we can take forward blended learning concepts in regular school environments too,” said Mita. Radha went one step further. “Some lessons have actually been delivered in a better way in the lockdown,” she admitted. “Some websites allow teachers to set up interactive quizzes or team games like Jeopardy, so the children learn while having fun with their friends.” Radha has also used the opportunity to invite guest lecturers to address her students. “We were always open to doing fun activities, but it’s become easier to get people to talk to the students now,” she said, explaining that her third grade kids had just attended a class on planetary systems with a science professional. “Pandemic or not, some new teaching methods are definitely here to stay,” she finished.

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