Nisha Soren lives in Chandanpura, a hamlet under Jarmundi administrative block in Dumka district of Jharkhand. The eight-year-old has not gone to school for the past eight months, because of the lockdown in place to contain the spread of coronavirus.
A student of class III, Nisha Soren is too young to understand the implications of the virus that has closed the doors of the school for her and other children in her hamlet. Unlike in other parts of the country, Nisha Soren and her classmates are unperturbed by the long suspension of classes.
Their studies have been continuing for the past four months thanks to the effort of her school teachers who have discovered an innovative way to impart education to their students. The teachers have converted the house fronts into blackboards and seats, to serve as classrooms.
The Upgrade Middle School, a government-run educational institution located at Dumarthar village of Jarmundi block, has 295 students in classes I to VIII. Sapan Kumar, the headmaster of the school, said that he was spending sleepless nights when the lockdown led to suspension of classes.
“The abrupt shutdown hampered the education of children but government had no choice in the face of rising cases of COVID-19. It disturbed me as children began to lag behind in their studies,” Sapan Kumar told VillageSquare.in.
“Moreover, they were not studying at home. This increased apprehensions among parents as well as teachers, that the children would get completely detached from education,” he said. “The situation was grim as there was uncertainty regarding the resumption of classes.”
The headmaster along with three other teachers of the school decided to offer classes under the shade of trees in the village. But soon they realized that the method was not viable as they could not ensure physical distancing.
Schooling at doorstep
The teachers were not ready to give up teaching altogether because of challenges, as they were fully aware of the pitfalls in case the students’ education came to a stop. Soon the teachers hit upon the idea of painting the outer walls of the houses into blackboards.
“The district has a large number of people who work as migratory labor in the neighboring states of West Bengal and Bihar. Lack of awareness about literacy coupled with social evils like child marriages are common here,” said the headmaster. “We feared that brakes on education will let the social evils rear their ugly heads.”
Students sitting on a raised mud platform and writing on the walls that double up as their blackboards while maintaining social distance and hygiene is a common scene at Dumarthar and its neighboring hamlets of Khargdiha, Chandanpura, Charkapathar and Simaria located at a distance of one kilometer from each other.
When the teachers of Upgrade Middle School (UMS), decided on their innovative method to take the lessons to the children’s doorsteps, they were apprehensive about the reaction of the villagers, most of whom hail from tribal communities.
“We decided to discuss the idea with the villagers. We were apprehensive about their reaction as most of them don’t have formal education. But to our surprise they came out in full support of us and offered us all possible cooperation,” said Anuj Kumar Mandal, a teacher.
“They showed remarkable enthusiasm and even painted the outer walls of their houses into blackboards and polished the raised mud platforms outside their houses to make it fit for children to sit and study,” Anuj Kumar Mandal told VillageSquare.in.
The classes started functioning at four points in a radius of one kilometer in Dumarthar and neighboring villages from mid-June. Students were made to sit at a distance from each other. Masks and sanitizers were provided for their safety precautions.
Additionally, the teachers got help from Digi-SATH, an online program started by the Jharkhand government during the lockdown for students from Class I to XII. Under the program, the government sends online curriculum on smart phones every day.
“We play the daily study material on the mobile phone after connecting it with the speaker. We tell the children to open the corresponding chapter in the book on which the study material has come from the government,” said Ajay Kumar Mandal, one of the teachers in Dumarthar.
“The students listen to the lessons attentively. Their queries are then solved on a common blackboard used exclusively by the teachers. Sometimes, individual queries are also sorted on their respective blackboards while maintaining social distancing,” Ajay Kumar Mandal told VillageSquare.in.
“The government has devised Digi-SATH because most of the children living in the remote areas of the state are poor and buying costly smart phones and a good Internet connectivity are still a distant dream,” said Ajay Kumar Mandal.
All for education
The villagers said they welcomed the decision of the teachers as they wanted their children to study at any cost. “We have spent our lives doing odd jobs and didn’t get an opportunity to learn. But we do not want our children to ruin their lives like us,” said Ramvilas Murmu (45), village head of Dumarthar, whose daughter also studies in the same school.
“We want to give them a better education so that they can walk in the society with their heads held high. We immediately decided to go with the decision of the teachers and to assist them in whatever we could,” Ramvilas Murmu told VillageSquare.in.
“We ensured that children maintained physical distancing, wore masks and used sanitizers to clean their hands,” said Ramvilas Murmu. “Children were also happy as most of them did not have to walk to school, but could attend classes just outside their houses.”
It is not just about teachers, students and the parents. The initiative also involves local youth who have turned volunteers in running these classes. The youth assist teachers in implementing pandemic-related norms and precautionary measures.
“We want the children to study and bring good name to our village. We help teachers in maintaining social distancing among the students and also ensuring the use of sanitizers and face masks for their safety,” said Bishnu Murmu (29), a farmer living in Dumarthar.
Students admit that the classes have prevented them from going astray. “During the lockdown, we were spending most of the time playing or at home. Though the lockdown kept us away from school, we have not lost our interest in studies because of our teachers,” said Munnilal Murmu, a class III student.
Teachers said that the innovative method of teaching has helped students to avoid lagging behind in their syllabus. The method has also ensured that students dropping out is almost nil. While the parents and students are happy with the arrangement, it comes as no surprise that the initiative has already earned the appreciation of senior government officials including the chief minister’s office.
“It is a very nice initiative by the teachers to teach the tribal students,” said Phooleshwar Murmu, the Block Development Officer (BDO) of Jarmundi block. “The lockdown has impacted the education of several thousands of children across the country. Those living in cities are managing with online education. The poor, however, have no such luxuries.”
“The efforts of these teachers stand as a true example that nothing can stop the nectar of education in reaching students if sincere steps are taken in the right direction,” Phooleshwar Murmu told VillageSquare.in.
Gurvinder Singh is a journalist based in Kolkata. Views are personal.