Around 11 am on a Friday morning, Thameshwari Chauhan, a school teacher with the Badhaipara Primary School in the Maoist-affected Sukma district of Chhattisgarh, was busy gathering children in the Bhattipara hamlet for a fun-filled playtime activity in the common ground.
Half-an-hour later, while Chauhan stood in the middle, eight children stood around her, eagerly awaiting instructions. The game she started was a test of mental agility wherein the children had to sit down when she uttered words starting with the Hindi letter ‘ka’ like kabootar (pigeon) or kamal (lotus). For words not beginning with ‘ka’, the children had to stand. At the end of a minute, all participants had lost except one.
In this new world of learning, teachers, parents and community-level volunteers engage with primary level school children in the rural areas of Chhattisgarh. Despite the area being marked by poor mobile connectivity, they ensure that the children continue with their lessons.
Designed by UNICEF, the program named Seekh, conducted thrice a week, is helping students keep up with their studies including language and mathematics, and sports, at a time when schools are closed due to COVID-19.
“Seekh program started in April after extensive planning on how we could ensure students continued with their studies during the pandemic and the lockdown,” Sanat Kumar Baghel, district coordinator for Seekh in Sukma district told VillageSquare.in.
When schools closed in March, cluster coordinators held meetings, formed groups and spread the word about Seekh in villages. Those with smart phones and internet connection were included in the groups. Seekh program has been made compulsory for all the government schools, to ensure that the students stayed connected to their lessons.
Teachers also spread the word about Seekh. As the teachers know the localities well, they were given the responsibility of enrolling volunteers for the program. They chose local people who were interested in teaching and guiding the children, could allocate time and had a smart phone, to serve as volunteers.
“Those of us involved in the Seekh program receive short videos on our phone about various kinds of activities well in advance. After that, we visit different villages wearing masks and collect about 10 children and teach them. Social distancing is strictly followed at all times,” Chauhan told VillageSquare.in.
Shikha Rana of UNICEF, Chhattisgarh, said that the video contents have been developed keeping in mind the competency of volunteers and parents. “They should not get disappointed by the content as the education level is not very high in most places,” she said.
In the videos, lessons are imparted through stories and interesting narratives. In one, a narrative involving mangoes help the children understand the concept of zero and counting. The narrator encourages parents to enjoy the stories along with their children.
One story is about Malu, a young boy, picking vegetables from the kitchen garden. When his grandmother tells him to bring potatoes, his dog helps him find the potatoes beneath the soil. The narrator asks the children to list other vegetables that grow beneath the soil, and to draw them.
“I like all the activities in Seekh program. Thameshwari (Chauhan) ma’m shows us videos on her phone. I miss doing the activities if she doesn’t come,” Geeta Nag, a student of class V told VillageSquare.in. “ My parents also help me with my studies.”
According to teachers like Chauhan, though children enjoy the program a lot, the lack of smart phones coupled with poor internet connectivity in the interior villages prove to be an obstacle in many places. Santosh Kumar Mandavi, a teacher from Tongpal village, said that out of 90 children under his care, he is able to reach about 50.
“I have bought a Bluetooth speaker to ensure that all children can hear me properly. Sometimes, even 40 children come at a time. But luckily there is a big playground with six trees under which they sit and learn, following the mandatory distancing,” he told VillageSquare.in.
In Jaimer village where Mandavi goes to teach, he faces network issue. Besides poor connectivity, the lack of adequate number of smart phones is also a problem. Mandavi said that out of 90 children, only four have access to smart phones. Parvati Baghel, a parent whose daughter Indu is in Class III, does not own a smart phone and relies on her neighbor’s for assistance.
“Parents with smart phones personally interact with their wards. Those who do not have phones rely on us. Common spaces like village playgrounds or courtyards are used for holding sports activities as well as classes. After I receive a video, I visit two villages close to my house usually late in the morning or afternoon,” said Chauhan.
Santoshi Dhruw prefers to visit in the evening. She said most parents cannot devote time to teach their children due to work engagements. But some parents like Rangila Kashyap said that they watched the videos whenever they had free time.
According to Sheshagiri Krishnagiri Madhusudhan Rao, an education specialist at UNICEF Chhattisgarh, there is perhaps a chance of schools reopening by the end of the year. But he pointed out that Seekh will continue despite the prevailing scenario.
“What we advocate through the program is that irrespective of schools reopening, parents should provide a supportive learning environment at home,” Rao told VillageSquare.in. “We also want to nurture the idea of seekh mitras or community volunteers. So, basically it signals a shift in culture.”
The role of volunteers is vital. Rao said the volunteers ensure that parents download videos and understand the content. Right now, nearly 4,000 Seekh volunteers are working across nine districts of the state where Seekh is operational. In Bijapur district, about 500 volunteers have been targeted.
Volunteers Dilip Thakur from Pujaripara village in Chhindgarh block of Sukma and Rukdhar Nag, a resident of Marenga village, said that they are happy to contribute in whatever way they can, to help children study during this difficult phase.
In Sukma district, the Seekh program is currently running only in Chhindgarh block divided into 27 clusters. In most schools in Chhindgarh, the number of students stands at 30 to 35. In Thameshwari Chauhan’s school, there are 30 children.
Wasim Khan, block coordinator, education department, said over phone that everyone is assisting in this project, which is a good sign. “If we do not conduct such activities, children will forget their lessons due to the long closure of schools,” he said.
Shyam Chauhan, district mission coordinator, Rajeev Gandhi Siksha Mission, said that there are plans to start Seekh in two other administrative blocks, Sukma and Konta as well, apart from Chhindgarh by August end.
He informed that there are 1,026 schools in the district but online classes can be held in only 343 due to poor connectivity. In the other areas, an initiative like Seekh can only be successful when teachers physically visit the villages.
“Increasingly, we feel the need to introduce Seekh in Sukma and Konta blocks, as well as in places where there is a network issue,” Shyam Chauhan told VillageSquare.in. At present, 285 primary school students are covered under the Seekh project in Sukma. According to Wasim Khan, 5,881 children in classes I to V of Chhindgarh block benefit from Seekh.
The Seekh program initially started in Dhamtari, Sukma, Raigarh and Jashpur districts. Enthused by the positive response, it has now been extended to Bastar, Narayanpur, Dantewada, Surajpur and Bijapur. Rao added that barring Kanker and Kondagaon, almost all Maoist-affected districts have been covered under Seekh. Even the Gujarat government is planning to adopt Seekh after translating the videos to Gujarati.
“We face issues with mobile network in the interior areas as 60% of schools are in the no-network zone. Wherever there is network, parents having phones help children. In inaccessible areas, community members, teachers and volunteers conduct the activities,” Baghel told VillageSquare.in.
Job Zachhariah, UNICEF head in Chhattisgarh, said that online classes are mainly suitable for posh and private schools in metro cities. “It is an important national issue as learning has been disrupted, especially in the rural areas, due to closure of schools. It will lead to dropouts once schools reopen,” he said.
The Sukma district administration is also actively helping promote Seekh. Rajesh Singh Rathour, cluster coordinator on behalf of the school education department, looks after 12 villages in Kukanar panchayat of Chhindgarh administrative block.
“It is a wonderful project. I encourage children to listen to teachers, and I request parents and volunteers to watch the videos. Children must feel at all times that schools are running,” Rathour told VillageSquare.in.
Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a Delhi-based journalist. Views are personal.