Updated: January 23, 2022 5:17:57 pm
While schools across the country have struggled to stay open for more than a few days at a stretch, one primary school in Satara district has not closed its doors for seven months now. Teacher Balaji Jadhav has held classes where he could on the premises, under a tree, in the verandah, squatting in the yard, to ensure his 38 students kept up with their lessons.
The single-teacher Zila Parishad School, in this remote village of Satara, has classes from 1 to 4. Jadhav says he decided physical classes were a must when he noticed his students, coming from mostly nomadic families, falling behind. With schools officially opening in Maharashtra after a long Covid shutdown only on December 1 last year, Jadhav got around this by not taking attendance. Still, the students came, and kept coming.
Jadhav, 35, who has won the state ideal teacher award as well as innovative teacher awards, managed this with the support of both officials and parents.
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Panchayat member Balveer Narale says they did not hesitate as they had seen Jadhav’s work and his efforts to teach. Savita Pawar says they were grateful for Jadhav as parents like her struggled to keep the children focused. “There was almost no learning happening, even those who had access to devices were too small to sit in one place attentively,” she says.
With news spreading of the Vijay Nagar school, parents from nearby villages have moved their children here. At least 11 students from private schools and from villages as much as 10 km away are now enrolled in its ranks.
Jadhav has been trying to implement changes in the school since his posting there in 2017. He earlier gathered donations to get students electronic devices and the school an LCD projector. As the school has no electricity, he struck a deal with a neighbour to share power, for payment.
When schools shut down due to Covid, devices that his students already knew how to use came in handy. “But despite this, I noticed that a group was getting left out. Parents would not take online education seriously, employing kids in housework, or for looking after cattle. Or parents complained children were distracted,” says Jadhav.
“We closed school in March 2020 during the first lockdown, when we didn’t know anything about the coronavirus, and a single case scared people. By August, the first wave was over and the village had no patients.”
Realising the effect on his students during the time the school was shut, he first tried to catch up by going to their homes, taking classes for one or two of them at a time. However, this proved too much for him to carry on single-handedly.
“That’s when I first decided to start school again,” says Jadhav. He began by calling students in batches, not more than five at a time, teaching them in the open, maintaining physical distance. In a few months, Jadhav says, the difference showed.
But then came the second wave, and as cases were reported in the village, the school again shut. “From December 2020 till March 2021, this continued. I decided to call students in batches when the cases again went down to zero, and we were open till the summer vacations. After that, since I restarted school in June 2021, we haven’t shut,” Jadhav says.
Maharashtra Education Commissioner Vishal Solanki said they are aware that in many remote areas where Covid cases are minimal, primary school teachers are holding offline classes informally. “It is up to the discretion of local authorities. What it means is teaching in open areas, under the trees or playgrounds,” he said.
As Covid-induced school shutdowns continue, calls have been growing louder for in-person classes to be started, as children remain the least vulnerable to the virus. In a recent interview, Jamie Saavedra, the global education director of World Bank, said there was no justification for keeping schools closed.
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Jadhav’s achievement is also commendable as Satara is one of the five worst-hit Covid districts in Maharashtra. Since June 2021, when the school has been open, the district has seen 97,583 cases and 3,357 deaths.
Apart from regular classes, Jadhav has started, what he calls, a ‘multi-skill development programme’. “I downloaded a piano app and taught the keys to the students. Each week I give them notes for a new song to practise. I also taught the children archery, Warli art painting, soap-making,” Jadhav says.
Pranaya Ajit Narale, 10, who is in Class 4, is among the eager students. “Earlier, when there were online classes, my grandparents would send me out with cattle. Sometimes I carried a mobile along but I couldn’t pay attention,” she says.
Chetan Galande and his wife, both doctors, residents of Mhaswad village that is 15 km away, now send their two daughters to this school. “Our village has bigger and fancier private schools. But a dedicated teacher is far more important. We saw the work that Jadhav sir is doing, the change in his students,” Galande says.
Village elder Murlidhar Gudim is also witness to this change. “During online classes, my grandson would keep the video off and sleep… Today he speaks such clear English, knows his numbers, can do counting. He is disciplined.”
Gudim speaks for many when he adds: “I think all schools should be reopened. Not a single case took place here despite the school being open for months. So why deprive children of education? Isn’t that loss massive?”
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