A photograph of a teenage girl sitting on the roof of her tiled house with a mobile phone went viral last week in the southern Indian state of Kerala, showing students' struggle to attend online classes when internet signals are weak. "We tried all places in my house including verandas and roofs. And finally, I got fairly good signal strength on the top of our two-story house," university student Namitha Narayanan told The Hindu
newspaper. Several educational institutions including schools began online classes on June 1 as they cannot open because of the coronavirus pandemic. But students, particularly in villages, have complained of the inability to attend them as they lack mobile computers, mobile phones or even electricity.Education in India has become a challenge for millions of children after the federal government decided not to open schools until August as the country struggles to fight the fast-spreading Covid-19 pandemic. An estimated 330 million students, 100 million in universities, had not attended their institutions since March when the government imposed a lockdown to check the spread of the virus.
Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, the federal human resource development minister responsible for guiding education policy, has said that the final decision on opening schools will be taken after Aug. 15. Christian social workers and educationists say that a democracy like India with 1.3 billion people should soon work out an alternative education system with both short-term and long-term perspectives. "There is a need for an alternative mechanism ... starting with this year. We cannot dump the whole syllabus on the students when they are losing months of classes. Moreover, many of the poor children cannot afford online classes," said Father Maria Charles, who heads the Indian bishops' commission for education. Online education cannot be a solution for the whole country, he told UCA News on June 8. "School authorities and others should find a way to reach out to the poor and village students." The priest's concern comes as health experts say the virus situation remains unpredictable and India will have to find systems to live with it. India continues to record an increased number of positive Covid-19 cases each day. Since the start of June, the country has recorded some 9,000 new cases each day, reaching a total of 269,000 cases and some 7,400 deaths. As the online system cannot educate most children in villages, "we believe that schools and other educational institutes should reopen at a suitable time," Father Charles said. The Catholic Church has the largest network of schools in India after the government. It runs some 50,000 educational institutions, including 400 colleges, six universities and six medical schools. The country has 900 universities and 40,000 colleges and at least 1.3 million schools, according to the official statistics of the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Opening these institutions is essential "because education also requires establishing the right kind of bonding between teachers and students. They learn from teachers and peers and they need to learn from social life and teamwork," Father Charles said. Y. Ovung of Lotha Baptist Church in Dimapur in Nagaland state completely dismisses the online mechanism as an alternative. "Online education, in the long run, can only have a negative impact," he said. Digital availability is another issue, Ovung said. Internet signals do not reach far-flung areas like the hilly villages of Nagaland in northeastern India. "Even in urban hubs, connectivity is poor. Normal telephone talks are also difficult. So how can online classes go on unhindered?" Ovung asked. Online education also can negatively affect students, says Guwahati-based educationist Ratnadeep Gupta. "Children are already experiencing sleep disturbance and decreased metabolism because they spend more time before laptops and mobile phones. So the new online education will lead to a new world of diseases and hospitalization," Gupta said. He said online education could be considered temporary but "there is an urgent need for research and innovation" to find a more effective system considering limitations of traditional schooling. A senior official in the federal Ministry of Human Resource Development said the government and policymakers are aware of the new challenges. The challenge is global, not special to India, he said. The official noted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had counseled students in January on exam woes and cautioned against addiction to electronic gadgets. Gupta and others agree that the pandemic's global nature offered the same kind of challenges to humankind, and education is only one. The pandemic offers a chance to end the socioeconomic divide of education and make it universal. "It could bring education out of the clutches of the rich-poor divide," Gupta said. Some parents are against the reopening of schools when the situation remains fluid. In Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana state, a group called the Parents Association has petitioned the federal human resource development minister to not reopen schools in July. They said schools should not be opened until there are zero coronavirus cases or a vaccine is found. Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhara Rao has already ordered the promotion of all grade 10 students in the state without examinations. They could not seek admission into grade 11 without losing an academic year. Such norms could possibly be tried in other states with some variations, making some wonder if education without exams could be the new normal. But exams would become necessary at some level, say after grade 12, when students need to go to universities and choose streams of science or arts. Father Charles said the demand for an alternative education system is not a call for an alternative to the technology or to abandon the existing systems. "The call is to change the system of teaching and learning, using the technology available to all, particularly the village poor," he clarified. If relatively rich students like Namiha cannot sit in a comfortable place and study, the situation of the poor is imaginable, educators note.
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