EVERY morning, Shubham Bhurkud, 12, puts on his school uniform. Every morning, he removes it without attending a class. The municipal school in Mumbai’s suburb of Jogeshwari, where Shubham studies in Class 8, requires its students to attend online classes in the uniform. Shubham’s parents, who don’t own a smart phone, don’t have the heart to dash his hope that, one day, he might be able to join in.
“We cannot afford a basic phone. A smart phone is out of the question,” says Shubham’s father Subhash Bhurkud, 39. A daily wager with three other, younger children, Bhurkud says his earnings have almost entirely dried up during the coronavirus curbs.
Shubham, who loves his school — Hindu Hriday Samrat Balasaheb Thackeray Municipal School, located near the slum settlement where he stays — is among more than 80,000 students who have fallen off the radar in the metropolis’scorporation-run schools alone since schooling moved online post-coronavirus.
As per data collected by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) till August 3, of the 2,46,626 students enrolled in its schools, 81,603 — one in three — are not attending the online classes. Of them, 52% are children of migrant workers who have returned to villages. Among those not attending classes, 76% don’t own a smartphone, 43% don’t have Internet connectivity.
The BMC has been holding online classes since the beginning of the lockdown.
As Shubham and sister Sonakshi, 9, stand listening, Bhurkud says, “Shubham is a bright student. We want him to continue with his education. But what do I do?… I’ve gone without work for five months now. My wife works as a domestic help, but the family doesn’t want her to join back for now. She was last paid in March.”
The BMC commissioned NGO Pratham to carry out the survey, and it talked to 6,673 parents across 52 civic schools in 12 different wards to “understand the access to and the response to online learning content”. The survey found that the digital gap was the widest among students in Classes 1-8 — Shubham’s bracket.
Salim Shaikh, 14, who is in Class 9 of the same school as Shubham, now sells vegetables with his grandmother to help make ends meet. His mother, a single parent, has been unwell and unable to work. About online schooling, he says, “I just can’t afford a smartphone.”
Deepak Sakhera’s niece Sanjana is in Class 8. Pointing out that they live under a flyover in Wadala, Sakhera, who collects old garments in exchange for utensils, says, “We pay Rs 10 to a shopkeeper for getting our phones charged. We give the phones in the morning and get them back in the evening. Before the lockdown, we used to send our children for private tuitions, now we don’t have the money, nor any Internet.”
Pratham also found that when families shared a phone, the first right to it was of the earning member. Moreover, some children ended up missing classes if their siblings had to use the phone.
Keshav Pokhre, 39, takes his phone with him when he plies his autorickshaw in the evenings, the same time that his sons’ classes are on. Sachin is in Class 10, Kunal in Class 7.
“My income has halved since the lockdown. It will come down further if I don’t have a phone,” Pokhre, who uses the phone for navigation, says, asking if there is any chance the government may give smart phones to students.
Five years ago, Pokhre’s daughter Ashwini (18) had been forced to drop out of school after her mother lost her permanent job, forcing the family to shift to a new, cheaper place.
Concerned at the “missing” numbers, the BMC has decided to introduce offline group learning. “We will open community learning centres with the help of NGOs, community outfits, parents and youth volunteers at community halls, welfare centres, temples, offices of political parties and vacant rooms, wherever it is possible for eight to 10 children to study at a time while maintaining social distancing,” BMC Deputy Education Officer Sangeeta Tere said.
BMC Education Officer Mahesh Palkar said they had identified volunteers — 9,500 ‘Palak (parent) mitras’ and 6,244 ‘Balak (student) mitras’ — to run these centres. The official said they had also started preparing grade-wise worksheets, focusing on language, mathematics and science, for distribution. Textbooks are being sent to students through the volunteers.
BMC Joint Municipal Commissioner Ashutosh Salil said that at these community centres, the students could share devices as well. “Group learning will also address the requirement of social interaction while embracing e-learning,” he said.
Farida Lambay, co-founder, Pratham, welcomed the move, saying, “It takes a village to raise a child. Even for remote learning, the community must create a conducive atmosphere for children to learn.”
The efforts are showing results. The BMC said not only had it managed to track many of the “missing” students, 76% of students enrolled in its schools now have textbooks.