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Indian Express Stories of Strength

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With WhatsApp classes, a lesson in how to keep underprivileged students engaged, and in school

How an educational NGO has been conducting 30-minute WhatsApp sessions on English, Hindi, Telugu and Mathematics for poor children hundreds of kilometres away to ensure they do not drop out of school.

May 5, 2020 1:07:33 pm

HYDERABAD: Despite the nationwide lockdown, a small group of six students aged between 8 and 12 years gather at a shed every morning, six days a week. Inside the shed, their one-room school, they sit on the floor with their worksheets facing a smartphone instead of the usual blackboard. On the phone’s screen is Neelima Kagolanu, their teacher who is seated at her home several kilometres away, who with the help of a local volunteer is guiding these children. As the clamour for online education grows across the country, keeping themselves updated is a necessity for these school dropouts, all on the verge of completing their one-year bridge course for re-entry into regular schools next academic year. This is Omkar Nagar, a densely populated slum near Miyapur Metro Station in Hyderabad.

By 10 am, Neelima is available to her students on WhatsApp video call. With 30-minute sessions on English, Hindi, Telugu and Mathematics, the class will continue till noon. Regular classes used to be between 9 am and 3 pm with students getting breakfast and lunch in between. “Owing to lockdown, half of our students do not turn up for classes. But we thought we should somehow continue,” says Neelima. Via video call, she assigns activities to the students and check the completed work and gives feedback.

The Omkar Nagar school is being run for the last three years by NGO ‘Chottu Ki Education’. For founder Yuvaneshwari K, keeping the parents motivated is a bigger challenge. “Since our school is inside the slum, we thought why not find a local point of contact in the slum with a smartphone and internet, and connect to our teacher through video call and do a revision for already taught subjects,” she explains. After scurrying for a location with the best internet connectivity and best service provider, two weeks ago, they set up their e-class inside the school itself.

Neelima’s students come from families of rag pickers and alms seekers. Some work for the Municipal Corporation’s sanitation contractors. “Based on their requirements, we educate them and prepare them for regular schools. Most could not write basic Telugu and English, but now they can confidently read and write. It takes a few months to create a sense of interest for education in them,” says Yuvaneshwari, adding that if classes are suspended due to ongoing lockdown, students might forget the lessons learned and lose too.

A few kilometres away at Nandi Nagar in Banjara Hills, Khushbow Vidyaniketan, a private school catering to students from extremely weaker sections, is shut owing to the lockdown. As teachers try to stay in contact on phone with the parents, they are faced with another challenge. “Most of the parents do not have smartphones as they are from extremely poor backgrounds. We are asking them to make students revise their lessons,” says principal Rajj Devi.

As the word of the principal extending help to various parents with ration and other essentials spread, scores of people gathered outside her home a few days ago forcing the local police to intervene and disperse all. “The biggest problem they face is the lack of food and essentials. Along with a few friends I had started collecting relief material for distribution and that’s when a lot of them gathered outside,” she explains.

While teachers cutting across all schools are advised to keep in touch with students during the ongoing lockdown, it is the younger lot who have their way. A Teach For India (TFI) fellow, Alexis has managed to get through to only 13 of his 30 students post imposition of the lockdown. He teaches Class V students at a government primary school in MRC colony, Film Nagar, where most students walk to school from the neighbouring slum.

As much as he is worried about the missing students, who he believes could have returned to their native villages, he has found something novel in engaging students through WhatsApp. Alexis sends his students short assignments every two to three days, and the students reply with finished works for him to evaluate. “If I am teaching something new, I send a voice message in our WhatsApp group explaining the concept. I send storybooks in PDF formats and try to get parents involved,” says Alexis, who feels he could have explained better in a physical classroom.

Another TFI fellow, Meghana Mojjada, says many of her students expressed difficulty in even getting their data packs recharged as they did not have e-payment wallets or even bank accounts. Meghana teaches Class VIII students at the Raj Bhavan government school, one of the best government schools in the state in terms of infrastructure and quality of education.

“Of our 141 students, we have 90 on the WhatsApp group. We have conducted online revision tests and pre-finals also. The question papers were shared in the group and students were given four hours to finish the exams. They evaluated themselves based on the answer keys,” she says. After the state government announced that students from Class I to IX will be promoted without any exams, she has shifted focus to extra-curricular activities by sharing reading material, YouTube videos and math puzzles.

hyderabad whatsapp school, hyderabad lockdown, teach for india, hyderabad ngo whatsapp covid 19, Chottu Ki Education, Indian express stories of strength, express covid 19 series, “Of our 141 students, we have 90 on the WhatsApp group. We have conducted online revision tests and pre-finals also”. Students show their classwork via WhatsApp.

EVERYONE IS CONNECTED

The notion that children do not have access to technology is probably a little exaggerated, says Preeti Iyengar, chapter lead at India Literacy Project (ILP) Hyderabad. In Hyderabad, at least, she says, most of the government school students have smartphones. The ILP Hyderabad chapter works with about 300 government high schools in Hyderabad and adjoining Rangareddy district, in collaboration with NGOs, Jaanya foundation and Aakruthi foundation. In the wake of a lockdown, the ILP is helping Class X students prepare for polytechnic entrance test through online coaching and also providing online career counselling to them.

“In a city like Hyderabad, I can say at least 80 per cent of students have smartphones. If not their own, they have their parents’ phones. We are in lockdown, so everyone has access. We are constantly connected with our students just like how the Corporate schools are. There are challenges but we have a realistic attendance of about 60 per cent,” she says.

Class X students, whose exams were stopped midway with the announcement of a nation-wide lockdown, are provided with a PDF file of e-content, a click on any respective topic would take one to a government portal that is created to help them revise their lessons. “We are all new to online tutoring. All are connected through phones, internet, google hangout call, zoom call, etc. Initially, it did take a week before they all learned how to mute their phones, cut off their videos, concentrate and listen to us. For some, to even create accounts. Such hiccups were early on. Now, students do look forward to this,” she adds. The students are also provided with links to motivational videos, meditation, etc.

When considering students of government schools and the impact of the ongoing lockdown on them, Varsha Bhargavi, an advisor to the Child Rights Protection Forum in Telangana, feels one should isolate Hyderabad and look at rest of the 32 districts in the State. “Forget about internet connectivity, there are remote areas where people don’t have mobile phones or even signal,” she says.

As students continue to miss out on their education, it may lead to a massive dropout scenario, a rise in instances of child and bonded labour, trafficking of children, etc, she says. According to her, the government is looking at the COVID-19 crisis from the health perspective alone and it was time it understood the socio-economic impacts too.

For example, she says, most of the worksite schools in brick kilns in Sangareddy district are shut at the moment. “As many as 324 children, mostly from Odisha, currently study in 10 worksite schools. As all are closed, naturally they would join their parents’ work. I have personally seen adolescents at work. At least now, the government has ordered these schools to function as before,” she adds.

The labour department recently started a state help desk and a helpline number which has been flooded with complaints. “Poor people are distressed and the moment the lockdown is lifted, they would take their children too to work to make up for lost income. Government school students are devoid of their nutritious mid-day meal during the lockdown. As all Anganwadi workers and ASHA workers are busy in fight against COVID, it would lead to a rise in stunted growth among children,” she points out.

Based on a petition from child rights activist and founder of Balala Hakkula Sangham, Achutha Rao, the Telangana State Human Rights Commission (TSHRC) on April 15 had directed the Principal Secretary, Department of Education, to make arrangements for the supply of groceries to children in government schools who are dependent on mid-day meal scheme, considering the ongoing lockdown. The officials, however, maintain all food security cardholders in the state are provided with 12-kg rice and Rs 1500 per month as a special incentive.

hyderabad whatsapp school, hyderabad lockdown, teach for india, hyderabad ngo whatsapp covid 19, Chottu Ki Education, Indian express stories of strength, express covid 19 series, “We are all new to online tutoring. All are connected through phones, internet, google hangout call, zoom call, etc. Initially, it did take a week before they all learned how to mute their phones, cut off their videos, concentrate and listen to us.”

Agreeing with Varsha, Achutha Rao claims 90 per cent of students in districts have no access to online-based education, and says those who go to government schools, especially in Hyderabad, are in fact from the most vulnerable category. “Even an auto-driver in Hyderabad who lives by his daily earnings would send his child to the neighborhood private school. It is only the children of slum dwellers who go to government schools in the city and they have no exposure at all,” he says.

Rao has been demanding cancellation of SSC examination this year and all students are promoted unconditionally. If the exams are held later in June, July or even in August, he says, private schools will manage to get the students ready on time. Whereas, government school students may lag as their teachers would get busy with the fresh batch of students who have been promoted to class 10. “During the statehood agitation in 1969, all Class X students were promoted. SSC is not a yardstick for pursuing higher education but only a certificate for proof of age. Let students be promoted and Intermediate be the yardstick that it is,” adds Rao.

B Sheshu Kumari, Director, State Council Educational Research and Training (SCERT)-Hyderabad said the state government is aware of the situation and has been making all efforts to bridge the gap caused by the lockdown. “All the textbooks till Class X are made available in e-content format on the SCERT website in a very user-friendly manner. Not only subject lessons, the content includes co-curricular activities in art, etc. Additional reading material is also available,” said the director, adding that the State Institute of Educational Technology (SIET) has developed a mobile APP too.

She says the lessons are transmitted through Doordarshan and T-SAT channel every day. The District Education Officer, Kumurambheem-Asifabad district, G Panini, too said the schedule of classes via television is shared with all headmasters and Mandal education officers, who in turn have passed it on to students.

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