Updated: January 3, 2022 9:55:10 am
In early March 2021, I walked into a classroom for the first time in over a year. Curious, excited, nervous children peeked at me from behind plastic cubicles. I removed my mask for a brief minute and introduced myself — “My name is Sukanya. This is what I look like”. In return, my students introduced themselves by sharing their usernames, their display pictures, what virtual backgrounds they like to use when they are online. All this while, the other half of my hybrid class stared down at us from the whiteboard, waiting for their turn.
That Covid has changed the face of education beyond recognition is no longer news. Teachers and students alike have learnt to make allowances for the constant unpredictability and upheaval. At the end of 2020, we were hoping for light at the end of the tunnel. “This year will be different!” students said. As educators, we echoed the sentiment. We were confident that noisy classrooms, piles of notebooks, constant interactions and a set timetable would solve it all. Having made half-hearted attempts at returning to full-fledged school over this year, we know better.
Even as we strive to reinstate a sense of normalcy, reminders of the pandemic are everywhere. Posters line corridors urging students to maintain social distancing. We watch with hapless exasperation as students push back against these norms. Who can blame them?
Our vision in shaping the future of these children remains conventional and academically oriented. Boards of education attempt to accommodate for the learning loss through new assessment strategies, unwittingly adding to the long list of uncertainties that students grapple with. Syllabus cuts and mental health webinars are handed out as solutions. One wonders if conversations about the future of school children are centred around their well-being. How much of their childhood are our students losing as they struggle to cope with the learning loss?
Perhaps, the greatest challenge in school education is diversity and inequality. While some students campaign to bring their various gadgets to the classroom for more integrated learning, plenty more continue to scout for a smartphone in working condition. Some students baulk under the academic pressure to perform, others haven’t had a single class in months. While older students voluntarily stay at home for fear of catching the virus, younger kids run into the classrooms with nary a look at their parents.
The return to school is a lot more complicated than it seems. Vaccinations, logistics, social distancing protocols and the burdens of an ever-changing curriculum weigh down students and teachers alike. One minute we are all returning to physical classrooms, the next, schools are closed for pollution, Omicron and more. The end of 2021 finds us in limbo — neither here, nor there.
But hybrid learning has opened up a whole realm of possibilities in education that simply did not exist earlier. It has also taken us by surprise. Teachers struggle to maintain the interaction between the two halves of their classroom. Logistics and technical snags impede the flow of classes, and the students who are online are often relegated to the position of mute, passive spectators to an ongoing class.
The year 2022 is a balancing act. On the one hand, there is the promising news of vaccine drives for 15-18-year-olds. On the other, Covid restrictions and the possibility of a lockdown loom large. There is a strong sense of understanding for the social-emotional challenges that children are facing at the moment. So is the mounting quantum of syllabus and new examination patterns.
For all of that, the coming year still brings hope. That we will meet as a room full of learners and individuals, recognised by their active choices. I hope that this is the one thing that we carry from this year to the next; the ability to see and recognise each other for what we are, rather than what we look like.
This column first appeared in the print edition on January 3, 2022 under the title ‘A Room Full Of Learners’. The writer teaches English at Shiv Nadar School, Gurgaon
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