In Kashmir, school children have barely gone to classes for nine months

Ulfa Rafiq’s school is walking distance from her home in the Hawal area of Srinagar’s old city. But since August 5 last year, she has only attended classes for 11 days.

As the Centre stripped Jammu and Kashmir of special status and divided it into two Union Territories on August 5, a complete lockdown and communications blockade was imposed on the Valley. Schools would remain shut for months, despite the government announcing that they had reopened. The schools that opened saw scant attendance, as parents were afraid to send their children out amid the communications blackout and the constant arrests.

Within months of the August 5 lockdown, the government announced a two-and-a-half-month long winter vacation, from December 10 to February 22. On February 25, Rafiq went to her school for the first time since August 5. But on March 11, the administration ordered the closure of all educational institutions. The Valley was entering a second lockdown, this time to contain the coronavirus.

“We were yet to settle down and go back to normal school life when another shutdown was announced,” said Rafiq, a Class 10 student. “But we thought it’ll be over soon.”

Like more than a million other students in the Valley, Rafiq has known little formal schooling since August 5 last year. She breaks into a smile when she recalls last year’s final exams. “In November, we went to school where we were given study material, question papers and answer sheets,” she said. “We were asked to write exams at home and submit the answer sheets after a week. You can only imagine how easy it would have been. We just consulted our study material on our own and then wrote answers. Was it really an exam?”

Students enter schools as they reopen after the winter holidays in February.

Lockdown learning

Across the country, schools have taken classes online for those students who have access to the internet. In Kashmir, this is complicated by the ban on 4G internet imposed on August 5 and defended by the government as being necessary for security purposes. After a complete ban on mobile internet for close to six months, the administration restored 2G mobile internet and fixed line internet services in the Valley. But few internet users have fixed line services and 2G mobile internet is inadequate to the demands of online learning.

“Our school announced online classes several weeks ago but the lack of high-speed internet makes it hectic,” said Rafiq, who relies on 2G mobile internet to attend online classes through the Zoom video-conferencing app and receive lectures through WhatsApp voice notes. “Most of the time, the connection gets lost and we have to reenter the session. The video quality is very poor.”

GN Var, the head of Private Schools Association of Jammu and Kashmir, a group of 4,500 private schools, felt the lack of 4G internet would lead to a “generation gap” between students in Kashmir and those from the rest of the world.

“There are government guidelines for online schooling but our kids have access to 2G only,” he explained. “All the interactive softwares and applications in the world today are 4G based. Why would a company make an interactive software that runs on 2G?”

The private schools’ association, along with a group of media professionals and doctors, filed a plea in the Supreme Court challenging the internet curbs. “Our contention was to allow us to have online schooling so that we can close schools,” said Var. “Who knows how long this pandemic will continue? But they are making a mockery of things.”

The Supreme Court, which heard the petition on May 11, refused to pass an order to restore 4G internet, leaving the decision to a special committee, led by the Union home secretary.

Students in the Valley feel let down by the judgment. “It seems nobody is concerned about the future and education of Kashmiri students,” said a higher secondary student from Srinagar who did not want to be named.

Going online

Schools in the Valley are making the best of limited resources. In North Kashmir’s Kupwara district, Sajad Ahmad painstakingly records and sends video lectures on WhatsApp. It takes him at least an hour and a half to record a 15 minute lecture. On average, he teaches three to four classes a day.

“All of our online schooling relies on WhatsApp,” he explained. “I have to first shoot the lectures myself and then upload them on WhatsApp. Every day, I send two to three videos to the different classes I teach. After the classes, I send and receive assignments from the students from WhatsApp only.”

Sending a video lecture on 2G internet means having to monitor it constantly to ensure it gets uploaded. “Once it’s sent, it takes my students the same amount of time to download the video lecture,” said 33-year-old Ahmad.

There is an added anxiety – Ahmad has not been paid his monthly salary of Rs 5,000 since the lockdown began in March, he says. “I have to feed my family and parents and I am expecting a baby soon,” he said. “All these months, we have been buying essentials from a village grocery shop on credit. Recently, I borrowed Rs 1000 from my friend to purchase a gas cylinder,” said Ahmad.

Schools in Srinagar have fared a little better, with teachers holding online classes on Zoom. But even this process is hobbled by the fact that most students have only 2G internet. “Our teachers are giving online classes to kids and the classes are monitored online by supervisors to ensure quality and understanding,” said Mohammad Yousuf Wani, chairman of the Green Valley Educational Institute, an English-medium school in Srinagar. With online classes set up, they might be able to cover the syllabus, Wani believes. “We will be in the process of holding online examinations soon,” he added.

A teacher at one of Srinagar’s top schools, however, is concerned by the lack of privacy and security features on Zoom. “Our school has made Zoom mandatory for classes and recently many flagged it’s not safe,” she said. “I don’t show my face to students on video. They can only watch my hand movements. It becomes boring for the kids and they don’t follow.”

Besides, most of her students are four to seven years old, which means it is up to the parents to ensure that they complete their assignments. “But not all parents have time and the level of education to understand the assignment,” she said. Out of 30 students, only seven to eight regularly submit assignments. “Honestly, I don’t blame the rest who are unable to do it at home,” she remarked.

Teachers also speak of their inability to test students through online classes. “If I am conducting a class test, how am I supposed to know if the student on the other side is not copying from a notebook or using another phone to search Google for answers?” demanded a private school teacher in Ganderbal district. “Even if we complete the syllabus, I don’t think the concepts will be clear in the minds of students.”

‘Miss going to school’

Class 6 student Zainab Basharat feels slow and patchy online classes are no substitute for going to school for “proper” classes. “We used to have different activities, art and craft classes and lab classes,” said the 11-year-old who studies at a missionary school in Srinagar. “We used to meet friends every day, now I haven’t seen their faces since March. I miss my teachers too. When we are in class, we are face to face with our teachers and we can clear our doubts easily. Also, the audio and video are not always clear because of the slow internet.”

The only time she has been to school since August 5 last year was in November, when she collected study material and question papers to be answered at home. Now with 2G internet, she has entered a new routine during the Covid-19 lockdown.

At 11.15 am, she logs in to Zoom for three half-an-hour long classes. She is joined by 90 other students. “After attending classes, I finish my assignments,” she said. “These days, I am preparing for online examinations scheduled from next week.”

Nowadays, she does not have to worry about doing her work on time. “Whatever work we are assigned, we write in our homework copies,” she said. “Teachers told us that this work will be checked once schools re-open.”

A sense of siege

Apart from disrupting academic schedules, the prolonged lockdown could have a psychological impact on children. “The primary impact will be on the socialisation skills of children,” explained Arif Maghribi Khan, a psychiatrist in Srinagar. “Sitting in a classroom with 10 other kids, teaches [a child] how to interact with 10 different people. That can’t happen in an online classroom. Children might grow reclusive.”

It was up to parents to stave off such crises, Khan added. “If the parents present lockdown as some kind of trauma before a kid, it will remain a traumatic memory but if the parents are able to make them understand it as an effort where staying indoors means saving lives, then it can have a different impact,” he explained.

In Kashmir, however, the strain of the Covid-19 lockdown comes on top of decades of mental health problems caused by the armed conflict. According to a Doctors Without Borders study in 2016, 45% of the population in Kashmir wee experiencing “mental distress.” “If half of the population has such a condition, how will they cope with the mental health care of their kids?” asked Khan. “Parenting will also be affected by the loss of livelihoods and jobs due to the shutdown.”

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