Covid-19 in Education: Are we creating safe and stable spaces for our children?

Sowmya Swaminathan
Posted April 6, 2020 from India
Students exchange words of kindness on WhatsApp groups.
Credit: Bhavya Malhotra

India: It is quarter to 3pm. For many around the world, it’s time to wake up from their afternoon naps or log into their Zoom yoga classes. But, for Suraj*, it’s time to unlock his phone. He checks WhatsApp, and opens an unread message — “Done half of maths...will be completing in a while”. There is a series of similar messages from peers who are updating their progress on the tasks assigned to them. There are appreciative messages too.

Fourteen-year-old Suraj is one of the many students of iTeach SVT, a low-income school run by the non-profit, iTeach Schools, in collaboration with the Pune Municipal Corporation in the city’s Hadapsar region in western India. Over 75% of children at iTeach belong to families of contractual workers such as daily wage labourers, rickshaw pullers, plumbers and domestic helps.  

The Covid-19 lockdowns have hit many, including these vulnerable and under-resourced communities, hard. According to Unesco, over a billion children have been affected by school shutdowns in 188 countries. In India, the affected learners are estimated to be over 320 million. 

Suraj says, “When we heard the (lockdown) announcement, we thought, “What will happen?” But, our teachers came up with an efficient solution (for learning). There is some tension, but...we want it to be fully successful.” 

Harnessing student leadership

Suraj’s Grade 10 Math teacher, Bhavya Malhotra, is leading a virtual learning project with an army of student leaders. Bhavya divided her class of 40 into 8 groups on WhatsApp and appointed a student leader for each group. Suraj is one of the leaders.  

In the initial days of the lockdown, she taught mensuration and geometry to the leaders over conference calls, and they were in turn tasked with the responsibility of calling up and teaching the 3-4 students in their groups on the same day.

“As this is an experiment, we are learning from this,” says Suraj. “My geometry is not that good. If (Bhavya) didi’s class is for half an hour, I take 3 times more for absorbing that information. Tension also comes…. If I have to teach something, I have to give my 100%. Their (his peers) future is in my hand.”

Bhavya echoes his fears. “I’m prepared to teach 90% of the syllabus from home. But, I’m worried. How will I test their actual mastery? I have no idea about the quality of learning that is going on, even with the leaders. I’ve made a feedback form that students can fill in to understand how we can do this (process) better.”

Suraj and Bhavya are, however, determined to acknowledge the brighter side of things too. Suraj says, “Sometimes, when students aren’t available (on the phone), we have to talk with parents. Apart from Mathematics, I have learnt how to interact with adults other than my family members.”

Bhavya feels virtual learning has empowered her students to hold her accountable. “Students are becoming punctual and if I’m late to a conference call, they ask, “Should we start the call?” Student leaders are honest, and if work isn’t getting completed, they ask for extensions. Independent learning and peer learning are happening. Once, I was late to respond to a student’s query on WhatsApp, and another student had already replied to him.” 

Boredom leads to learning 

Over 700 miles away, in the southern city of Chennai, Teach For India Fellow Akalya Karunanidhi has embraced virtual learning as well. Akalya is a Grade 3 teacher at a low-income government school, Chennai Primary School, in North Chennai. 

She says some of her children got comfortable with WhatsApp on the second day of the lockdown and were looking forward to learning through it. 

She says, “Some students, who usually wouldn’t complete the homework, are now saying, “Miss, I finished homework, I want more”. But, some also got bored of WhatsApp, so they asked me, “Miss, teach something over a phone call, no?” Another said, “Why are you not conducting assessments? I’m getting bored.” 

Akalya says she felt proud when a few of her children typed sight words on their WhatsApp groups. “Words like ‘today’, ‘together’ are really big words for my kids. Yesterday, when we sent a Covid-19 awareness video, a kid asked, “What is the spelling of Coronavirus?” They are being more open (to learning).” 

Inequity comes to the fore 

However, Bhavya, Aklaya and many other teachers admit that they are unable to teach all their children virtually. 

Samina Quettawala is a Teacher Leader at Wadibunder Mumbai Public School. The school is run by the non-profit Akanksha Foundation in collaboration with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai. 

She says some of her children have gone back to their villages and there’s no way for her to be in touch with them. Bhavya, Akalya and Samina also say the phones of some of their children are sometimes not reachable or switched off. 

These teachers are also anxious about children who don’t have access to mobile phones or the Internet. Nearly 4 children in Samina’s Grade 6 classroom of 35 students don’t have access to WhatsApp. 

Bhavya says, “The connectivity is terrible, and it wastes a lot of time. Sometimes, our voices on conference calls aren’t even audible. Out of 41 students in my class, 12 don’t have a steady mobile phone, 14 don’t have stable internet connectivity and 3 are out of town.”  

The teachers say lack of access to technology is an everyday obstacle to fruitful learning and student engagement. 

Samina says, “The engagement level is around 45-50% for grades 5 and 6. We are anticipating that it will drop further. I’m trying to identify the skills they need for next year and work on them right now.” 

The harsher realities of virtual learning are beginning to inform the pedagogical choices of the teachers. 

Shift to skill-based learning

Samina isn’t focussing on content-heavy topics anymore. “Even if we are doing revision, it doesn’t make sense anymore, because the kids won’t be tested on it. We are trying to keep learning relevant.” 

She recently tasked her students with an activity instead: making masks at home. “I sent them an instructional video, got them to make masks and share pictures on WhatsApp. We are also asking them to do skill-based tasks such as making a timeline of the outbreak or a graphic organiser of the important Covid events, etc.” 

Bhavya and her army of leaders are also shifting to a skill-based model for learning during the lockdown.  

While some children in urban India are leveraging WhatsApp to learn, rural India paints a different and perhaps, a darker portrait.

Learning levels to be hit

Neeraj Naidu is the resource development lead at Shiksharth. The non-profit organisation works to strengthen multilingual education for tribal children hit by left-wing extremism in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district in central India.

Neeraj says they are unable to help children learn during the lockdown. “They are in the interior villages. There are network problems, so they can’t use the internet. Mobile phones are not there with them, and their parents have no alternatives. There is no way to connect.”

Neeraj, who also teaches Grade 9 at one of the 5 residential schools that Shiksharth works with in rural Sukma, says in a class of 40 children, only 15-20 have a smartphone. 

Nisha Subramaniam is the co-founder of the non-profit organisation Kanavu and is part of a 4-member team that leads ASSEFA Schools in Tamil Nadu’s coastal Cuddalore in southern India to provide quality education for children from tsunami-hit communities.

She says, “It’s been interesting to see children learning from home and Google classrooms being set up in many places. I think it is a stark reflection of inequity. Not all of our students’ families even have a phone, let alone a smartphone. So, the bare minimum we could do is send SMSs to them, which is also fairly expensive from a school angle.”

An IndiaSpend article on a 2018 Pew Research Centre report states that, “India ranked at the bottom in internet usage-to-population ratio, along with Tanzania, with only one-in-four Indians using the internet.” The report adds that “the percentage of Indian adults who used the internet had gone up from 16% in 2013 to 25% in 2017. More than 70% of the population in India has no access to the internet, most of it in rural India.”

Nisha feels technology alone cannot solve inequity. “The reality is that we are not able to reach every child. Children are not learning and will come back not having finished this year, with a huge summer slide in learning levels.”

Neeraj’s concerns are similar. “They have no exposure to literacy or numbers. Everything they have learnt throughout the year vanishes into thin air. There is a huge divide between urban education and what these children are learning. It is going to be really bad.”

Offline libraries to the rescue

StoryWeaver is an open source digital platform of multilingual children’s storybooks from Pratham Books. The platform has over 19,500 storybooks in 230 languages. 

Purvi Shah, the Director of StoryWeaver, says, “To enable teachers and parents to help children during this crisis, we has launched #ReadAtHomeWith StoryWeaver campaign. This gives adults access to curated resources like Lists, Read-alongs and STEM content. We understand that data restrictions can be an impediment to access, and therefore have made these resources available through our Offline Library, where one can come online, add books and then enjoy them seamlessly, even while being offline.”

Learning may take a backseat

While innovative technological learning solutions are emerging, things are beginning to take a turn for the worse on the financial front for several vulnerable communities. Many low-income households in urban and rural India are struggling to arrange for finances. 

Samina says, “I’m worried about kids that don’t have money to eat. They literally come to school for food because that’s the only meal they probably get.”

Many teachers feel learning is expected to take a backseat in the days to come, as families scramble to stock up on rations. They worry about learning levels, but are aware that there are bigger battles to fight. 

Samina adds, “I really hope all educators keep in mind that there is a global pandemic happening and kids are being isolated, so they are not going to remember what they did on a worksheet. What’s important now is focussing on “Are my kids doing okay?”

Stability over outcomes

Dr. Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham Education Foundation, strongly believes that this is not the time or the year to think about outcomes. 

Pratham, a non-profit organisation, conducts a national survey and releases the Annual Status of Education Report in India every year. 

Dr.Rukmini believes this is the time to think about everyone’s well-being. “We need to focus on what keeps children secure and what helps them learn in different ways. Kids keep watching how parents and adults are reacting to this unusual situation. So, if you think about education as being prepared for life, then a heavy dose of that is probably happening now.”

She believes the education system “should not pretend that once we go back after a month or two, we will pick up where we left off and continue from there.” 

She says the experiences of children during the lockdown should be acknowledged and “leveraged for a different kind of learning”.   

Suraj wholeheartedly agrees with her. He says, “Their (students) emotional and physical health are getting affected by this. Teachers should do activities which can (help students) recover their health.” 

(*Name changed)

This story was submitted in response to Dispatches from the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Comments 15

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maeann
Apr 07
Apr 07

Wow Sowmya :) you are a good story teller... It's like I am watching a documentary... thank you for sharing this. There are opportunities and limitations of this lockdown. Whatever it is, I hope these students maximize whatever resources they can use.

Sowmya Swaminathan
Apr 07
Apr 07

Dear Maeann,

Thank you so much for your kind words. Yes, there are pros and cons to this crisis. It really is up to educators, teachers and leaders to leverage the learning that is happening during this crisis. Thank you, Maeann!

Gratitude,
Sowmya

Elizabeth Titus
Apr 07
Apr 07

Dear Sowmya,

I have learned SO MUCH from your informative, comprehensive article! I have been to India several times, most recently, just this past February 2020, in New Delhi and Rajasthan. I visited schools and met wonderful young students, and since then, I have wondered how teachers are handling the crisis. You provided many insights and astute observations along with quotes from leading educators. Sitting at my desk high above the Hudson River in NYC, I now feel a bit more connected to a country -- India -- and people I love and admire. All the best, Elizabeth

Sowmya Swaminathan
Apr 07
Apr 07

Dear Elizabeth,

Thank you so, so much for your words of encouragement and love. I'm so happy to connect with you. I'm glad you had a wonderful experience meeting children in India.
Children around the world are amazing, and there's so much we can learn from them! Looking forward to hearing more from you, Elizabeth!

Gratitude,
Sowmya

Thelma obani 2020
Apr 09
Apr 09

Very inspiring and interesting write up..we will continue to learn from others and do our best..stay safe❤❤❤❤

Sowmya Swaminathan
Apr 09
Apr 09

Thank you so much, Thelma, for your kind and uplifting words! Please take care and stay safe! <3

Gratitude,
Sowmya

Anita Shrestha
Apr 10
Apr 10

Dear Sis
Thank you for sharing for giving creative idea during lock down

Sowmya Swaminathan
Apr 11
Apr 11

Thank you, Anita!

Hello, dear Sowmya,

How are you? I love reading about initiatives and resourcefulness of kind-hearted people during this COVID-19 lockdown. Thank you for giving us a glimpse of these from India. These are really wonderful projects worthy to be emulated. I also agree that more that the intellectual lessons, we all need to protect our emotional/mental health.

Please keep on posting, dear. Please stay safe and stay stronf always.

Sowmya Swaminathan
Apr 15
Apr 15

Dearest Karen,

Thank you so much for your words of kindness, warmth and motivation. <3 I'm so grateful for your encouragement and leadership. You've read every story that I've written here and supported me every time. Thank you, thank you. <3
I'm doing well! How have you been?
Yes; there are so many terrific initiatives that non-profits have undertaken during this crisis, and all of them deserve to be highlighted purely for the impact that they are creating on the world!
Food/Relief/Supplies and well-being are our top priorities, especially while serving vulnerable communities.
Thank you, Karen. Stay safe and take care. Love and power to you!

Gratitude,
Sowmya

Aww. You’re so appreciative. The pleasure is mine, dear sister. :) You are a good storyteller.

All is well with me here. I shall post an update soon.

Wow, I am happy to know about that, dear. This pandemic exposed our truest selves. Some complain, but blessed are those who provide solutions and inspire others. The latter is what I love reading about. Kindness is powerful. :)

Thanks for sharing the good out of this crisis. Keep it up, dear!

anita shrestha
Apr 14
Apr 14

Thank you for sharing

Sowmya Swaminathan
Apr 15
Apr 15

Thank you, Anita!

SeemaKhandale
Apr 17
Apr 17

Great write-up Sowmya. So many things to learn from you. Glad to connect with you here as a WP Sister:)

Btw, I'm in Mumbai, you can pl connect with me on whatsapp number too 9930025807
Thanks

Sowmya Swaminathan
Apr 19
Apr 19

Hi, Seema! Thank you so much for your kind words. Welcome to World Pulse. This is a wonderful community that nurtures, supports and inspires me everyday, and I'm so glad to connect with you here! There's a private messaging option on World Pulse, so you could use that to connect with me as well. Thank you!