Not prepared for boards, say poor, rural students after year of online classes that never were (The Print)

New Delhi: Mumbai resident Usman Khan, 17, faces his Class 10 Maharashtra board exams later this month, but the prospect fills him with nervousness. With his father, a driver, losing his job during the Covid lockdown, Khan took up manual labour last June — when restrictions began to be eased — to provide for his family.

The job required Khan to work over 12 hours loading and unloading items from trucks for a Sakinaka transporter, and his studies took a severe hit.

“I was only able to quit (the job) earlier this year after services in the city resumed. During the time I worked, I could not attend my online classes,” he told ThePrint.

The Maharashtra state board exams are currently scheduled to begin on 23 April, but reports claim they may be postponed in light of the fresh Covid wave.

Usman said he is not prepared to take the exams if they are held this month. “I missed out on about six months of learning. Even if I sit and study for 12 hours every day, I don’t think I will be able to cover my syllabus.”

Akul Yadav, a Class 12 science student from Haryana’s Gokalgarh village, didn’t have to work through the lockdown like Khan had to, but he is equally nervous about his board exams, slated to begin later this month, and is even contemplating taking a drop year to make up for the time he lost for engineering preparations.

“Poor connection was a problem that plagued our online sessions from Day One. Either we would have a problem with our connection or our teacher, in order to figure out a light group calling application (which didn’t require very fast internet), kept switching from one app to another,” he said.

“I am considering taking a drop year the coming year. I appeared for the JEE but couldn’t do well. There wasn’t much learning that happened this year, I had to rely on YouTube and Vedantu (tutorial app) videos to be able to take my exams,” Yadav added.

The past year was unprecedented by all accounts because of the pandemic, which saw the entire country retreat into a two-month complete lockdown to check the spread of Covid. The upheaval was particularly intense for schools and colleges as they were forced to recalibrate and look for alternative ways to pursue the curriculum in the absence of physical classes.

While the new system entailed adjustment from students and teachers across the board, the overall impact of the Covid lockdown left many students from weaker economic backgrounds and those in areas of patchy internet connectivity, especially villages, reeling.

According to a survey conducted by Delhi-based NGO ChildFund India in November 2020, 64 per cent of students in rural areas feared they would have to drop out of school if not provided with additional support to cope with the learning gaps in their curriculum.

While several NGOs, along with schools and teachers, stepped up to the challenge and have been trying to help such students out ahead of their board exams, many like Khan and Yadav remain apprehensive.

Highlighting the disproportionately adverse impact on students from economically weaker sections and rural areas, experts have offered many suggestions to ease the blow. These include declaring 2020 a “zero academic year”, and preparing modules for accelerated learning to bring the students up to speed.

ThePrint reached education department representatives in three states — Haryana, Rajasthan and Maharashtra — for comments on the concerns raised by students.

Calls and texts to Aparna Arora is the Principal Secretary of School Education, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra Education Minister Varsha Gaikwad, were yet to elicit a response at the time of publishing. An official in Haryana Education Minister Kanwar Pal Gujjar’s team said there had been no talks on the matter, and they would look into concerns when they are raised with the government.

Meanwhile, the official added, the Haryana government is in the process of “providing tablets for all children in the state so that they do not face difficulty with learning”.

“Since network is an issue, we will be loading study material onto the tablets, so that students continue to have some reading material,” the official said.

Lost time

Most of India’s different school education boards — central and state — usually hold their annual exams in the first few months of the year, but the pandemic has forced them to push the dates back.

The CBSE Class 10 and 12 exams are scheduled to commence on 4 May, and most state boards are also eyeing a date in the first week of May. The Rajasthan Board of Secondary Education (RBSE) Class 10 and 12 exams are scheduled to begin next month.

In West Bengal, state board exams are going to be conducted in June.

Some states, meanwhile, have already conducted their exams. For example, the Bihar board held its annual Class 10 exams in February, and recorded a pass percentage of about 80 per cent. The state’s Class 12 board exams were held in February as well.

After the Covid lockdown, schools were allowed to partially reopen last year — on a voluntary basis, with students’ attendance conditioned on parent consent — but many states and union territories have shut them down once again amid a fresh surge in Covid cases. In many places, the fresh shutdown doesn’t affect students in classes 10 and 12.

But the time lost in the preceding months is what continues to bother students. The disruption caused by the Covid pandemic has also led to calls from several CBSE and ICSE students to postpone or cancel this year’s board exams.

Yadav, the Haryana board student quoted above, acknowledged he was among the lucky few who could afford a Wi-Fi connection. “I was able to watch some of these learning videos online but I also have friends who didn’t attend classes for months. Their parents couldn’t afford getting a Wi-Fi connection or personal phones for studying.”

Nitin Meena, a Class 12 science student from Karauli, Rajasthan, said his studies were adversely affected by patchy internet connectivity, adding that he was altogether unimpressed with the concept of online lessons. “Most of the time, we were not able to connect with the online lectures. Learning was so rushed that we felt like we weren’t able to catch up with what was being taught in the sessions,” said Meena, who studies in a Rajasthan-board-affiliated school.

“Since it is Class 12, we need extra time with teachers to help us solve our doubts and queries. This couldn’t happen with online classes,” Meena said, adding: “I don’t feel prepared for my board exam.”

How teachers, NGOs stepped up

Rajasthan-based Abhay Ojha, who works with the Delhi-based NGO Kaivalya Education Foundation, said he creates week-long learning modules for students and 40 community workers had been tasked with conducting lessons in the rural areas of the state along the Aravalli belt.

“Since we live along the mountain belt, the connectivity in villages is very poor. Students had no access to online mediums, even those students whose parents had touch phones didn’t know how to use them,” he added.

“Reaching out to students physically was the only way to make sure that learning doesn’t stop. We had to train community leaders since teachers were expected to go to school everyday and didn’t have time to make community visits. Another problem that the teachers faced was that even if they had cell phones, they lacked the technical know-how to be able to conduct classes using them.”

Khan’s teacher Rohan Rahpure, who is affiliated with the NGO Teach for India, said the problem the former faced was a common complaint. “About 20 per cent of my 30 students had to take up jobs to make ends meet.”

He added: “Only six students in my classroom had access to steady internet and learning devices. The rest of the 24 had to rely on post-dated YouTube videos that I would upload. In January and February this year, when the Covid caseload reduced, we rented a community centre where we would conduct classes for 10 hours with a two-hour break in between.”

‘Zero academic year’

Aekta Chanda, a senior education specialist at the Delhi-based NGO ChildFund India, said 2020 should be declared a zero academic year to ensure justice is done to all students.

“Students in rural areas are far behind their urban contemporaries who have better access to tools aiding education. In order to make a level playing field, this year should be declared a zero learning year, after which the governments must ensure that grade-level learning happens for all students,” she added.

Dr Niranjanaradhya V.P., an expert in development education and programme head at National Law University, said this loss of learning was a violation of students’ fundamental right to education.

He suggested that state governments prepare two to three months’ accelerated learning programmes for every grade to bring students up to speed. “There is no denial of the fact that students from rural areas and marginalised communities did not have access to learning (during the lockdown). In order to teach students the basics of the grade they are in, states and the Centre should come up with an accelerated programme so that these students don’t miss out on grade-level learning.”


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