The teacher isn’t from their school, but a friendly neighbourhood face who understands their problems well. Five months after lockdowns began because of the Covid-19 pandemic and classrooms shifted online, thousands of kids in Nuh who couldn’t access the virtual classes are now seeing the classroom return to them, one batch at a time.
The administration in Nuh and the Haryana education department have started enrolling graduates as education ambassadors to teach students after finding that nearly three-fourth of the nearly 1 lakh students enrolled in its schools were missing digital classes. The reasons varied: poor internet connectivity, no access to a smartphone or a laptop and not having a TV set at home.
Called siksha doots (education ambassadors), the local youths are voluntarily teaching kids in their respective villages by setting up community classrooms. Among them is Tarjuma Khan. The 21-year-old was finding it difficult to accept that parents of girls in her village Khadela were contemplating pulling their daughters out of school when classes were no longer taking place. When her former teacher told her about the administration’s initiative to set up mohalla pathshalas, she did not think twice.
“This will help both me and the students. I’ll not only get the first-hand experience in teaching the government syllabus, but will also prevent children in my village from dropping out. This is a matter of pride for me. I am not taking any money for this, I just want to change the image of my district,” said Tarjuma, who set up a classroom in the house on Monday.
Currently, 140 education ambassadors have set up classrooms in 62 villages in the district. Encouraged by the response, the administration is planning to expand the initiative to other districts as well.
“Initially, we had started community classes with the teachers available with us. But that was hardly enough to take the drive across to other villages. That is when we came with the idea of siksha doots. Local graduates with basic knowledge of the major subjects were identified and persuaded to participate in the drive,” said Anup Singh Jhakkar, the newly-appointed district education officer.
When schools had to be shut down because of the lockdown in March, the administration was faced with a challenge to provide education to children in Mewat (now Nuh), found to be one of the most backward by Niti Aayog in 2018. Ensure students could access online classes through smartphones, EduSat or local TV channels was an uphill task.
That’s where the administration hit an infrastructure hurdle. According to an internal survey, nearly 70% of over 1 lakh students in classes I to VIII did not have TV sets, smartphones, or access to the internet. Moreover, teachers were in short supply — around 50% of the 9,083 sanctioned posts were vacant.
As uncertainty prevailed over the reopening of schools, the situation turned alarming as students were found helping parents in farms or just loitering around. Only a few with smartphones were catching up with the new mode of education.
“In secondary and high schools, we have 588 teachers, which is 885 short of the total vacancies. With such resources, it was difficult for us to open learning centres in all villages where physical distance and other safety protocols could be followed. Community participation was the only way out,” Jhakar said.
It was in July that the district education officer directed the government teachers to reach out to villagers and seek their help in setting up mohalla pathshalas. The initial idea was to bring students back to the classroom mode.
The teachers drafted in a few college-going youths to help them in the process. While the teachers took classes, the youths helped the village kids in revising fundamentals like multiplication, general knowledge, and English and Hindi grammar. In many villages, temples and mosques were turned into classrooms with lessons being imparted over loudspeakers.
Guarding against Covid
But there were concerns. One of them was to ensure Covid stayed out of the classrooms. “We had thought this through. These community classes have children from the locality itself. In case somebody gets infected, we can trace them easily and contain the areas,” Jhakar said.
Officials said the education department was aiming to cover at least half of the 1 lakh students enrolled in schools. The daily timetable and details of lessons to be taught are being uploaded by the head office in Chandigarh and shared with the education ambassadors. These local youths get one day to prepare their lectures.
However, a visit to these pathshalas highlighted the need for more skilled youths. Parents of students welcomed the initiative but said the quality of lectures needs to improve.
“It’s a great effort indeed. But the department should ensure that all these youths are properly skilled. Teaching is not easy. Many of these graduates are not good at English. So, they need to be trained to ensure the quality of education,” said Mohammed Yonus of Ghasera village.
The education department, however, said groups have been formed on WhatsApp and other social media platforms to monitor the outcome of these classes on a daily basis. Besides taking classes, the siksha doots are also being asked to counsel students and bust myths around Covid-19.