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Education In Bengal Continues To Suffer During The Pandemic. What’s The Reason?

This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

Technology-enabled education and not just online education should be the way forward.

Vinayak’s father works in a local biscuit factory in Kanduah, West Bengal. Being the first in his family to go to school, one can see the brightness in his eyes when he talks about his desire to go to college. But the beginning of online education in his school has left him stressed and unsure about his future. With the presence of one smartphone in the family carried by his father to the factory, this class XII student of Kanduah Mahakali High School awaits his return at night to go through the classes in the morning. He stays up late at night to finish homework. “I face a lot of difficulty in understanding the homework since I cannot attend the live classes during the day,” he shares.

This is not an exceptional story. West Bengal has hundreds of such stories as students with a lack of privilege struggle to cope up with education, online.

Soumi, a class IX student of Begum Rokeya School, travels a distance to her uncle’s house on Sundays to avail his smartphone. She has a few hours to take note of the week’s engagements and try to finish her homework. She comes back home, stressed. There is a constant awareness of lagging compared to her friends with privileges. Her school teacher, Nandita Mazumdar, says, “If anybody is going through the worst phase in the pandemic, it is the students. I do not have a decent attendance of students whenever I take my class on google meet. I usually send explanations through voice messages following with homework. There is a lack of communication that leads to lack of interest. If I ask in the group if they have understood, I will get ten replies saying a ‘yes’. Even then, I know, I am not able to reach even 50% of my students.

If everybody had access to technology, things would have been different”, she mentions.

Representational image.

Having said that, she does acknowledge her students’ complaints of lack of concentration due to constant engagement with phones and lack of practice to adapt with this method of learning, leading to worries about their health.

But this issue needs to be seen from a broader perspective.

It is not a restrictive argument of technology versus no-technology that if you provide the same to the ones lacking it, the problem gets solved. Instead of making education equal to technology, there should be a basket of solutions together. Online methods alone can not be the present or future of learning for the big reason as it lacks socialisation, thus becoming contradictory to the fundamental values that education wishes to impart concerning our Constitution. The technology could be used as a support to enhance learning, but when it is all you have, its effectiveness and impact on ones availing it leaves room for questions.

Nirjhar Mukherjee, Professor of Berhrampore college, tries hard to reach students without gadgets by dividing them into groups with, say, one laptop, and they sit distantly in nearby fields and attend his zoom classes. The group consists of not only his students but also of nearby colleges. Criticising online education as the only way, he urges the government to come up with alternative methods too.

This is close to the Karnataka model that is successfully being practised, where community halls, playgrounds and big religious places are used for face to face learnings. After few educationists went to the Karnataka High Court questioning online education, the Court, in a document called Vidyagama, stated a host of methods including both online and offline ones to continue learning that would cater to each student.

The Court orders strict regulations for online methods (like the stipulated time frame for classes keeping in mind students’ lifestyles and mental capacities) and a bunch of guidelines for face to face learning. The Vihara system is followed immensely and uses big balconies as classrooms. Along with this, classes are being uploaded on YouTube for students to access at their convenience and lessons broadcasted through television and radio. The latter was incorporated in West Bengal at the beginning of the lockdown but discontinued soon.

Niranjanaradhya VP, an educationist, part of the team who moved the Karnataka high court says, after the new approach taken by the state, instead of other dropouts, there have been incidents of students joining government schools leaving their private ones. Here, they are getting healthier and diverse opportunities to learn than private schools. Teachers are able to engage in conversations with students on how they are coping with the pandemic, their problems, and their feelings. This sharing helps their mental health to thrive in this difficult time. Reports have found an increase in admissions in government schools.

Representational image.

In West Bengal, fear of dropouts continues among teachers. Swadesh, a teacher of Kanduah Mahakali High School, says, attendance is very poor when he takes classes. There is a small section which has the means to come to class and a large number of people lack; Another section who can manage but does not come because of lack of interest fuelled by the absence of any surveillance on them by teachers. An ongoing concern is the lack of interaction with students in order to retain them in school. Earlier they could reach their parents, give them certain punishments or build relationships with them where they would want to come to class.

Vinod, a student of his, comes from a family where he is the first to go to school. Initially, with not much interest in studying, he worked in a local factory to earn his family’s bread and butter. Encouraged by teachers, he had started improving his grades. Now due to lack of any means, he is completely cut off from school and his apathy, as Swadesh says, is just going to grow. He comprehends an increase in child labour among his students. Optional attendance, coupled with a lack of examination, has proved to be difficult to bring students to online classes.

But it needs to be reminded that the solution is not to provide technology to the ones who lack. The fundamental question should rather be upto what extent does the online method alone succeed in furthering the values of education moving towards a better society? When there are different groups of people with different means and accesses, the solutions should have a mix of options to accommodate each and every student. Technology as support is acceptable, but it alone is not. The objective should always be to bring methods to continue the education of every child as per their needs.

The All Bengal Teachers’ Association President had a similar recommendation to that of the Karnataka model. He expressed deep concerns for students of class X and XII suggesting that with the infrastructure of government schools, it is not an impossible task to hold classes in schools or other convenient spaces for at least these two standards. Lack of proper education in this crucial time would affect their marks, further affecting their college admissions.

Apprehensions exist on how they would perform in interviews and examinations without quality education. He doesn’t have much faith in the manner in which online classes are happening and states that it is impossible to maintain the teaching quality with the support of voice messages and videos. “Online education is just one restrictive solution. One has to think of other alternatives. We are ready for any kind of discussion with the government as to finding a solution together for the future. But for that the government has to take the topic of education seriously,” he said.

Since the beginning of the lockdown, ABTA has been sending recommendations to the West Bengal Government, but there has been no response yet.

Education in Bengal continues to suffer during the pandemic, with a dearth of inclusive methods of learning. Online education caters to students of classes IX to XII mostly in government schools, excluding the primary branch altogether. Education is a fundamental right of every child in this country, yet is one of the most ignored issues for most governments. The government needs to take lessons and come up with alternatives with the support of technology wherever required.

Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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