Facebook and The Indian Express bring you a series on those at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic. From healthcare workers to government officials to innovators — a look at their day at work, their struggles and challenges.
NEW DELHI: Around 4:30 am, a car stops outside the Eidgah ground in Srinagar’s Old Town area. A man steps out, lugs a whiteboard about 500 metres inside. Then a whiteboard stand, pens, dusters are carried. Soon, a group of teenagers turn up. Some have chairs, some mats. They sit around the whiteboard at a distance from each other, masks on. And slowly, just as the sun is about to rise, a classroom springs to life.
The man is Muneer Alam, a mathematics teacher, and this is his ‘open air’ classroom. With his coaching institute shut due to the lockdown and online classes “near impossible” on Kashmir’s 2G internet, Alam was at a loss about how to keep the lessons going. The school session in Kashmir has been interrupted since August 2019 – the coaching class being shut meant many students had no access to education at all.
It was then that Alam hit upon the idea of an open air classroom – a space large enough for students to gather, while maintaining social distancing.
Alam, an engineer from NIT Srinagar, runs a coaching institute called Gaash – the Light of Knowledge (‘gaash’ means ‘light’ in Kashmiri). His batches usually have around 80 students of Class 11 and 12 each, from different parts of Kashmir.
Students sit around the whiteboard at a distance from each other, masks on. And slowly, just as the sun is about to rise, a classroom springs to life. Express Photo by Shuaib Masoodi
“I first tried teaching online. I created WhatsApp groups of about eight children each, and tried sharing audio files, video clips, images of my notes. But on 2G internet, it was near impossible. Even if I managed to send the files across, students, especially those outside Srinagar, would have trouble downloading them. Also, a lot of families have only one smartphone per household. Multiple siblings can’t study on that.”
March, and much of April, passed like that. This was the longest Alam had gone without teaching, and he was getting anxious. “Education is very important in a place like Kashmir. It’s the only way to keep our youth away from depression, drugs, or violence. I was desperately thinking of ways to get classes back on track.”
Then, as the lockdown slowly eased, Alam started lessons at home, in batches of five-six students each.
“This was better than online classes, but it was difficult to cover all students in such small batches. Finally, I decided we would have to move to a space large enough, and the only option was an open ground. For two weeks, the students were trained in sanitisation and social distancing. They were told masks were compulsory, there was to be no mingling with friends though they were meeting after long, everyone had to carry sanitisers, and bring something to sit on. Not everyone can carry chairs, but if I provided them, there was the chance of chairs getting mixed up and shared.”
So now, those who can, bring chairs. Others bring seating mats or simply plastic sheets.
Afaaz Yousuf Pushoo, a resident of Srinagar’s Chattabal and Class 11 student who has been attending the Eidgah classes, says: “We gather here before dawn, for two classes of two batches. Everyone adheres to Covid-19 precautions. We begin early so we can wrap up before the sun gets harsh. There are students here from outside Srinagar, but they manage to reach on time, because after months, we are finally having proper classes.” Online lessons on 2G internet, he says, are highly irregular. “If you have doubts, you don’t know when you will be able to connect with the teacher next to have them cleared.”
Students were told masks were compulsory, there was to be no mingling with friends though they were meeting after long, everyone had to carry sanitisers, and bring something to sit on. Express Photo by Shuaib Masoodi
There is no fee for the open air class, and even those not part of Gaash are welcome to join. In normal times, the fee for one eight-month course – Physics, Chemistry, Math – is Rs 10,000. Right now, with incomes hit due to the pandemic, parents have been asked to pay if and when they can.
The math class has been on for almost a month. A few days ago, physics classes have begun, run by Rafiq Bhat, also of Gaash.
The lockdown is not new for Kashmir, though. Neither is the lack of internet – both started when Article 370 was abrogated on August 5, 2019.
“The lack of high-speed internet is crippling, more so for students. The government says 4G internet can’t be restored for fear of misuse. But even a car can be misused. Does that mean you take cars away from people? No, you have a traffic police for that, a monitoring system. It’s the authorities’ job to prevent misuse. Right now, those who most need the internet, for constructive, productive activities, are suffering. For students and teachers, the Covid-19 lockdown really brought the lack home,” Alam says.
“Before the coronavirus pandemic, we made up for the lack of internet with physical resources. After Article 370 was revoked, my institute was shut for some days. But within a few weeks, I was going door-to-door, asking students to return to class. By mid-September, classes had begun. I was sent two threat letters, for running the institute despite the boycott call over the scrapping of Article 370. But I am a teacher, my job is to teach. I have continued teaching through the 2008 and 2010 unrest, after the killing of Burhan Wani in 2016. But in the Covid-19 lockdown, we couldn’t even meet our students physically.”
Alam’s students are turning up for class each day, chairs strapped to bicycles, tied behind scooties. Express Photo by Shuaib Masoodi
Alam has been a teacher for over 20 years. He has also been associated with the Kashmir University in an advisory capacity, and taught in the first higher secondary school in Srinagar.
“Being a teacher in Kashmir is a unique experience. You are dealing with students who have witnessed or lived through terrible violence and trauma. Amid all this, the job of a teacher is to show them the hope of a better life. To tell them that education and literacy are different – a truly educated person knows there is no greater religion than humanity, and works to better her own lot and of those around her. This has to be a continuous lesson, there can be no flagging.”
Right now, his students are turning up for class each day, chairs strapped to bicycles, tied behind scooties. “Since Article 370 was scrapped, we have hardly had 15-20 days of regular school. But we can’t let our challenges push us back. We have to make our way ahead with what we have,” says Atif Rauf, a Class 12 student of Gaash, from Srinagar’s Batamaloo.
Alam believes the pandemic is a good time to reassess priorities. “The Covid-19 experience should tell everyone that the only real asset is trained manpower, the most essential service education. We have huge military bases, why can’t we have equally large schools where classes can run maintaining social distance? I hope the pandemic will turn the government’s attention to what its priorities should be, in Kashmir and elsewhere,” the teacher says.