We have almost come to the end of June; in the normal course of events, by mid-June all students would have been back in school, classmates hugging each other and the school curriculum operational in full swing. Not ‘this’ June, however. Not only do schools continue to be closed, there’s no visibility either on what the future holds for students and teachers, given the COVID-19 curve in the country that shows little sign of flattening.
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Just as everywhere else, schools in the city are apprehensive. It is unlike any situation they’ve faced before. “I think the education system has never been questioned like this before, because it was convenient to not think about it. But today schools are forced to innovate,” says Naveen Mahesh, Managing Trustee of Headstart Learning Centre (HLC) in Thalambur.
Are teachers ready?
A survey conducted by the Centre for Teacher Accreditation (CENTA) revealed that the number of teachers across the country taking to online coaching has tripled over the two months. From 22% of teachers who were using online teaching methods before the country went under a lockdown in response to COVID-19, 76% of teachers now said they had taken to online teaching.
With virtual classes ranging from anywhere between 2 to 6 hours a day, it is not just the children but teachers as well who are trying to adjust to this new ‘normal.’ “We do hear of schools where teachers are facing challenges, not just because their craft has changed but also because online is not a direct substitution for the classroom,” says Prabha Dixit, Principal of Akshar Arbol.
According to Prabha, schools who had been using technology in regular teaching and learning even before the pandemic will find it easier to handle virtual teaching as compared to schools who’ve used technology only for administrative purposes. “I would not say learning new tools is a cakewalk, but teachers also need a training plan to keep their morale high,” she says.
Latha (name changed) works as a teacher in one of the reputed schools in Chennai. She points out that over the last two months, she and other teachers have been busy planning and preparing for the academic year to reopen. This included exploring various online platforms that can be leveraged for live classes online.
Latha and her colleagues have been sending e-copies of lessons in both text and audio format, lesson-based practice work and self assessment exercises and language enhancement exercises followed by the answer key through online portals and media to every student. The students are encouraged to seek clarifications via email.
She adds, “We have been attending a lot of webinars on how online teaching and learning can be made easy and glitch-free for both teachers and students. It looks and sounds promising but we are yet to experience it first hand.”
There are myriad challenges to overcome. “We face issues with technology and infrastructure, such as inconsistent WiFi speed and gadget malfunctioning. We also face issues due to limited gadgets available at home, which needs to be shared with everyone,” explains Latha, adding, “Our lifestyles, too, have become very sedentary. Extended screen time is a health hazard for us, given that there are no fixed working hours. Coordinating with colleagues is a challenge we face. We are hopeful that this situation is temporary.”
To pay or not to pay – that is the question
While schools, teachers and pupils grapple with new realities, another controversy has arisen to make the situation murky: should parents have to pay fees under the present circumstances?
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdown, the Tamil Nadu government issued an order that unaided institutions cannot collect pending fees or fees for the next academic year. However, private institutions requested parents to pay the fees, which led to a PIL being filed in the Madras High Court. The verdict is yet to be pronounced but till then the Tamil Nadu Government orders remain in effect.
The High Court has asked the Government to respond to the question of how schools will pay for the staff and services, if they are not allowed to collect even minimum fees.
This debate seems likely to continue for some time to come now, as this is an unprecedented situation and there are no easy answers. But in all of this, the key question remains, what about learning? Will COVID pave the way for a new education system altogether?
Will schooling change forever?
The huge impact of COVID on schooling is visible in that there’s no consistency in the teaching methodology that schools are following. Karnataka has already banned online classes for kindergarten and primary class students. Some schools are resorting to video conferences, while others are using recorded video lessons and resources or YouTube links to impart knowledge.
Many schools in Chennai have started online classes for kindergarten and primary. Priya (name changed) says, “I have to sit with my child to operate the laptop and manage my office work at the same time. It is not easy.”
With many parents also working as front-line COVID workers, they are finding it increasingly difficult to adjust to this change.
Schools themselves are not clear on when they can start physical classes. Most are waiting for the state government to instruct them. But parents are still not confident of sending their children back to school. Prabha Dixit says, “We need to find a middle ground. And most schools are yet to figure that out. We cannot replicate the entire offline learning experience in the online mode; at the same time, we cannot say no to virtual learning.”
“What we need to think of now is how we can keep the child’s creativity and passion alive. Schools should not assess all children in the same manner. The world is richer due to our differences, not by our similarity,” says Naveen who insists on nurturing ideas and creativity in children rather than a text-book based approach.
He adds, “I would say one of the drawbacks of our system is we have a curriculum due to which everyone is forced to master the same knowledge, which does not help.”