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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

No Internet, school comes home in rural Sikkim

While the Sikkim government has launched the Sikkim Edutech App to help students from Class 9-12 cope with the learning loss, it's the junior students and those in far flung areas who were left with little support.

Written by Esha Roy | New Delhi | Updated: August 24, 2020 1:56:27 pm
Sikkim online classes, Sikkim online classes in rural areas, Sikkim rural areas online classes, Sikkim lockdown, Sikkim covid cases, India news, Indian Express A class being held in Posakey village, East Sikkim. (Express Photo)

Sometime in April, with Covid forcing schools shut, Indra Mukhi Chhetri, a maths and science teacher in a rural area of South Sikkim district, began worrying about her students. While schools were expected to conduct online classes, Chhetri knew that would be a non-starter considering these were areas with little or no phone connectivity, let alone Internet.

“I was really worried. The people in my village are mostly farmers, very poor. This makes education an even bigger priority for children in these areas than those in urban centres,’’ says Chhetri, who teaches at the VCGL Senior Secondary School in Ravangla.

So every day, Chhetri begins her rounds of the village at 9 am, visiting her students “one by one” and taking impromptu classes — maths to science and English to general knowledge.

While the Sikkim government has launched the Sikkim Edutech App to help students from Class 9-12 cope with the learning loss, it’s the junior students and those in far flung areas who were left with little support.

Read| Covid crisis has showcased the resilience and innovation of the education system

It’s into this vacuum that teachers such as Chhetri have stepped in to ensure that children don’t miss out on learning. As more teachers reached out to their students, visiting them personally with resources, word spread of the simple, yet effective, teaching programme, all the way up to Gangtok. Last month, when the lockdown was lifted, the government formally adopted the programme, calling it “home-schooling for elementary education”.

“The teachers were doing this arbitrarily. We decided to issue guidelines and make the system more structured,’’ says Director, Elementary Education, Bhim Thatal, adding that all of Sikkim’s 10,252 government school teachers have been pressed into service under the programme.

The Education Department meticulously mapped out the location of every government school teacher and assigned them areas. “A teacher living in a village may actually be employed in another village or district. But now they can ask their counterpart in that village to take over their students and vice versa,’’ says Thatal, adding that the government was also using community radio to impart lessons as well as local television networks to telecast science and maths classes.

Lockdown lessons| When room moves to home, class comes into the classroom

Additional Chief Secretary (Education) with the Sikkim government G S Upadhyay says it was the poor connectivity in the state (both phone as well as Internet) that prompted the government to adopt the “homeschooling” programme.

“It’s only in a few urban areas of Sikkim that parents own smartphones or tablets. So there is a glaring digital divide in these parts. There had to be a solution to this divide. Many teachers started this initiative to ensure that children kept up with their education. When we saw how successful this was, we decided to make it an official system last month,’’ he says.

Nevika Kafley is an English teacher at the Senior Secondary school in Bermiok Tokal, South Sikkim. From 9 am till lunch time, Kafley visits the homes of several students she has identified the evening before. Over the week, she reaches out to around 35 students between Classes 1 and 5. Like many teachers in Sikkim, Kafley began this exercise in April, when schools shut, two months into the state’s February to December academic calendar.

“I spend about 20 minutes with each student. On a weekly basis, I collect their notebooks and write lessons for them, which they have to finish over the course of the week. I also brief the parents on what needs to be done,’’ says Kafley, adding that the village has little Internet connectivity most of the time. Besides, none of the parents in Bermiok Tokal own a smartphone.

Ganga Biswakarma teaches Hindi, English and Nepali to students from Classes 1 to 5 in Pamphok village. But unlike Kafley and Chhetri, she doesn’t visit the students’ homes. Instead, she calls them, five a day, to a community room and conducts classes.

“Some of the parents were worried about coronavirus and didn’t want the classes in their homes. But at the same time they wanted their children to study. So this was the best possible solution,’’ she says.

“Most of the parents are happy with the homeschooling system. I had one parent joking that when the pandemic is over, she would send her children to live with me and study,’’ she laughs.

For Sonora Chhetri, a mother of two in Samdong village, 40 km from Gangtok in East Sikkim district, the homeschooling system has made a world of difference. Thrice a week, Chhetri’s 9-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son and three of her neighbours’ children, visit their teacher’s home in the neighbourhood.

“The classes start at 9 am and usually go on till 1 pm. On the days that they don’t have classes, the teacher sends us homework through WhatsApp and even calls us to check how much the children have finished. They get homework every day and are even given tests. We are poor people, and if it wasn’t for these teachers, our children would have had no education at all,’’ she says.

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