A couple of days ago, a teary-eyed Vaishali, a student of class VI at Maharashtra Aikyavardhak Mandal in Tilak Nagar, called her school teacher Kalpana Shende.
Amid the lockdown, Vaishali, whose parents are construction workers, has been living out of a half-built construction site in Tilak Nagar. “She broke down on the phone, and said her father beats her mother, and there was nowhere to go. The boredom of staying put was constant. I asked her to refer to a section of math problems and focus on English spellings.
“‘Prepare as though you still have exams’, I told her,” said Shende.
As more and more stories of migrants struggling to fend for themselves emerge, education has taken a backseat for children who are a part of these groups. Here, the struggle for survival has overtaken other aspects of growth, with education coming to be considered a privilege. The digital divide has grown wider, with many private schools, switching to online classes as well as exams.
There are 66,033 schools under the state school education department, run by zilla parishad and local independent bodies. With schools being shut, the access to virtual classrooms and other facilities has been cut for all its students. As of September 2019, 2,71,892 students study at BMC schools, most of whom are from underprivileged backgrounds.
Out of nearly 200 students who study at Maharashtra Aikyavardhak Mandal in Tilak Nagar, only about 2 per cent students would have laptops or computers at their homes, said Shende. “The parents of many children are ragpickers, or involved in similar jobs. At their homes, one finds four to five vessels and few clothes. Most of them eat only once a day. At present, many have left for their villages,” she added.
Class V student Siddhi Rajguru, who lives in Panchasheel Nagar, doesn’t have any access to a cellphone or a laptop. Her father Satish Rajguru, who works as housekeeping staff, said, “The only way to keep her engaged is through books, by repeating the same chapters. Other children in our area are only playing, as most don’t have access to educational resources on the Internet.”
While it is yet to be announced, education experts and officials from the department have said they believe that the lockdown on schools will continue till May end.
Co-founder of NGO Pratham, Farida Lambay. said, “Our experience of working in rural areas has shown that only one person in most houses owns a smart phone, usually it being the male member. The digital divide is a hard reality among the poor, who are most hit. After every such disaster, there is a problem of school dropouts and huge learning loss among them.”
Lambay suggested that the state government should target school children through relief material that is being distributed by the state. “Quizzes, puzzles, questionnaires can be ways in which this can be done. Usage of television and radio can also prove a helpful tool at such times.”
When contacted, School Education Commissioner Vishal Solanki said that the state school education department will be rolling out a programme for underprivileged children on Monday. The department has partnered with NGO Leadership For Equity and UNICEF to develop content for state’s own online platform called Diksha, as well as for radio and television. The initiative will be launched by Minister Varsha Gaikwad through Facebook Live and other mediums.
Academic advisor to the state, Madhukar Banuri, said: “While private schools have devised online mechanisms for students, we have been figuring out ways to help underprivileged children.” Diksha, an already existing platform of the state, has been updated with over 8,000-plus content pieces. This can be accessed through the QR codes already present on the back of every state board textbook.
“Even in backward areas like Amravati and Melghat, we have found 60 per cent penetration of smartphones with good network. The intention is to involve students in self-learning and convey the message that the state is doing everything it can to ensure that students keep learning. Around 30 to 40 per cent students in remote pockets of the state still struggle for Internet connectivity, but once the resources are downloaded, they can be accessed offline,” Banuri said. He is also the founder and CEO of NGO Leadership with Equity.
Following suit of initiatives started by other states, Maharashtra is also planning to launch programmes through television and radio, said officials. Next week, the programmes will be broadcasted on television and radio for students who do not have access to Internet or computers. The state has partnered with UNICEF to also develop a plan for responding to COVID-19.
“Six weeks of academic time has already been lost. We have devised a mix method involving radio, TV and the Internet app Diksha, to bring educational content to as many children as possible. In phase 1, we are looking till May end. Existing content involving simple games, episodes on parenting and others, will very soon be broadcast and telecast,” said UNICEF education specialist Reshma Agarwal.
UNICEF, along with the state department, is also creating a learning management system wherein content developed across all states can be accessed by teachers and students, said Agarwal.
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