School Bells are Ringing

A wave of joy, appreciation and a general sigh of relief was heaved all across the UT of Jammu and Kashmir when the government announced the reopening of schools on Saturday (23rd Jan). They have proposed a staggered start to all educational institutions, with 9th – 12th classes opening from 1st of Feb in Jammu division. Subsequently, elementary schools will be opened from 8th Feb. The authorities have asked the schools to follow all Covid-19 related protocols like seating the students at a minimum distance of 2 meters, and making sure no gatherings and crowds are formed. The schools in the valley would open up at the scheduled time after winter vacations.

This is probably the first winter parents are glad to hear of schools being reopened. Every other winter students and parents alike would want to hear of extended vacations because of cold and snow. This time though everyone is glad the kids would be going out. After such a long time.

All schools across the UT were closed last March due to the increasing scare and cases of Covid in the country and across the world. The pandemic had everyone, almost every government, at the end of their wits and every country was going into complete lockdowns to reduce spread and save some lives. The response was also triggered by the posts and videos that came from Italy and left everyone petrified, even of meeting their own family members or going out for walks. Closing educational institutions sounded right because they host a huge crowd of knowledge-seekers and a single carrier would have infected a huge number of families all at the same time making the infection curve grow exponentially. Also, children are seen as the future of every society and as such the protective instincts overrode all logic and reason.

Even though the initial closure of schools was for a time period of a month, the timeline soon changed. The increase in cases showed no signs of slowing down and hence the reopening of institutes got ambiguous. Instead, all offices and businesses started closing. The educational sector, once they realized that they would not be opening up anytime soon, switched to online mode. A lot of schools, colleges and tuition centers started taking classes on Zoom and tried to keep their students on track with their studies.

Even though this all had its perks and benefits, especially for those who had to travel long distances or roam around the city to attend all tuitions along with school, a lot of others suffered a great deal. Teaching fraternity also heaved a sigh of relief; at least till Zoom classes were not planned and executed. This though was only the sunny side. The darker side, the one most people missed was that of government school students. The ones whose parents weren’t as privileged. The ones for whom a smartphone was a luxury they couldn’t afford. How were they supposed to attend these online classes?

A lot of posts on social media appealed to people to donate their old smartphones to students who couldn’t afford one.

In times when the lockdown was killing the economy and a lot of families didn’t have food to eat two square meals per day, they had to look for smartphones in order to let their wards keep studying.

The issue is not merely the closure of schools due to Covid, but the fact that our kids have been sitting at home since August 5, 2019. In between schools merely opened for a week before being closed up again. A year and a half without any school. 500 days. Without any form of formal education, socialization or fun. Without any phone connections, schools or internet it has been a difficult task for families to keep their young ones entertained. These long periods of being confined at home have taken a toll on everyone and the boredom and agitation of the younger lot is no different.

As per a recent study published by UNICEF on 9th December, data from 191 countries was studied and no correlation of Covid infection rates in the community was found with the school status. That means the number of infections would have remained the same even if schools were open. This absence of an education system puts strain on children coming from less privileged backgrounds. Mostly schools give them a temporary respite from the reality of their lives and a reason to smile. With the prolonged closure of schools we are not merely looking at the lack of support system and social life but also a probable increase in the number of students who drop out.

The question is not merely when schools and colleges would open. The fact that every other institution is working in full capacity is the question. If every other place was cleared for opening and operating, why not schools? If public transport is functional without any social distance or masks on people’s faces, why not schools?

Many people may claim that online classes suffice the need, but with 2G internet connectivity is it really possible to have a good online session? What about those students who do not own a smartphone, or are too young to own one and both parents are working? What about the attention span of 6 year olds? What about the distractions of games and WhatsApp messages while attending a class?  The underprivileged? The areas where the internet remains suspended?

Higher secondary institutes were opened in late October for students who wanted to attend. No classes were given. Merely doubt clearing was done on a one-to-one basis with a teacher.

The current order can, in the same manner draw flak for how can anyone gather kids in a place and keep them from playing together or having their lunch together? How can we expect them to meet after a year and not embrace each other? How can they not hold each other’s hands to silently tell one another of how they longed this company, this togetherness? When we are asking them to maintain physical distance, are we even being fair to them?

If gatherings in mosques and on marriages can be allowed, why not schools?

  • Hirra Sultan is a Srinagar-based author whose work on gender, health and society has appeared in many local publications

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

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