On farmlands along the banks of the Yamuna in East Delhi, informal ‘schools’ that used to provide after-school extra classes have now become primary learning centres for children of urban farmers. As schools across the city continue to remain shut amidst the Covid outbreak, various points under the under-construction Barapullah flyover serve as sites of several informal schools that run from morning to evening.
While government and MCD schools are offering remote learning, these provide a more direct interface, albeit with social distancing norms. These informal set-ups restarted their operations in July after seeing that the children were cut-off from learning.
“My mother goes to my school on Wednesdays and collects worksheets with Hindi, English and maths exercises. I do whatever I can by myself; if there’s anything I can’t understand, teachers here help me out. The next Wednesday, my mother submits those to my teacher and picks up worksheets for the next week,” said Gautam, a class II student at an East MCD school. This is his only interaction with his school, but he attends classes at the informal set-up run by Satyendra Pal, a 25-year old B.Sc. graduate, under the flyover every day except Sunday.
The hours of the school are long — 8 am to 11 am are for maths and science for students of class VIII and above; 12 pm to 3 pm are for English, maths and Hindi classes for younger children starting from those of nursery age; from 3 pm is English for the older students, as well as English and science for class VII students.
Rizwana, a volunteer at Satyendra’s school, constantly reminds the smaller children to keep some distance between each other. Like the other informal schools, teachers here have distributed masks and hand sanitiser. “I had restarted with only nine of the older children in July. After demands from the other children and their parents as well, and because children’s studies were suffering, we decided to go ahead with precautions,” said Satyendra.
His ‘school’, running from a hut with a tarpaulin roof and an outdoor patch next to it, has around 150 students who pay between Rs 100 and Rs 300 — whatever they can pay — while those families most pressed for finances pay nothing. None of the families have been able to pay since the lockdown.
“The children are getting worksheets once a week from school, which amounts to them getting homework. No one is teaching or explaining the new things in their syllabus to them. In this case, we are teaching them the syllabus from scratch. What started as a remedial centre is now a full-time school,” said Satyendra, who has been taking after-school classes for children of the area since 2016, and now has five other volunteer teachers with him.
This was echoed by law student Deb Pal (24), who runs another ‘informal school’ barely 50 metres away in another hut. “We started last year as a coaching centre and gave each child around 40 minutes in a day. Now that we are operating as a school, we are giving each child three hours in a day. We start at 7.30 am. In the mornings, we focus on English, in the afternoons, we focus on Maths, and then we have one hour to help them with their worksheets,” said Deb, who runs the set-up with four friends as teachers.
The students here are children of those who farm on the Yamuna Khadar. Smartphone usage is low in these areas — houses do not have electricity and rely on irregular solar energy, which makes charging devices difficult.
Though government and MCD schools send worksheets on WhatsApp, at homes without a smartphone, parents go to schools to collect worksheets. In families that do have smartphones, the resource is stretched thin — Omprakash, a class IX student of Satyendra’s school, has five other siblings and one smartphone to share.
Naresh Pal (27), an MSW graduate and UPSC aspirant, revived his classes after four years during the lockdown under another portion of the under-construction flyover. The children sit in groups of around 25 on plastic stools under five different sections of the flyover.
“I used to take classes here between 2011 and 2016, but stopped after I started preparing for UPSC. Now that classes at my coaching centre have gone online, I started taking classes here with four other volunteer teachers. There are so many children here who, even at class VIII and IX, can’t read their textbooks. If it weren’t for schools like ours, I don’t think they could have even done their worksheets,” he said.