After 18 months of virtual classes, schools have resumed physical classes for students in the 9th to 12th grades in Tamil Nadu. Earlier this year, schools had reopened for senior classes in April, but the decision had to be reversed by the government due to onset of the second COVID wave. Now as schools decide to reopen classrooms once more, there is a palpable feeling of joy and excitement among students. But how do teachers and educators feel about it? What have been their learnings from online teaching during the pandemic and how will it all come to bear upon the days ahead?
A webinar conducted by Citizen Matters Chennai on August 27th brought together teachers from various Chennai schools to hear from them and understand their points of view. The session was moderated by Merlia Shaukath, founder and CEO of Madhi Foundation, an NGO that works in the education sector. The webinar took a deep dive into the challenges faced by the teaching community, their experience of teaching during the pandemic, and what they anticipate for the near future, as schools for seniors resume.
The pandemic redefined the roles of teachers and educators at several levels. With e-learning becoming the only option for schooling to continue, the responsibilities of teachers saw quite a drastic transformation. The switch was sudden and unanticipated for everyone involved in the education ecosystem and brought with it its own challenges.
Speaking at the webinar, T Manonmani, Teacher, Middle School Maths, said that she never imagined how things would turn out, at the very beginning. “When the lockdown was first imposed, we only saw it from the perspective of an extended vacation. But the situation took a completely different turn as the pandemic worsened and we had to continue school in virtual mode. While we got trained to handle online classes, bringing students together was a challenge due to their socioeconomic backgrounds,” she said.
Overcoming challenges posed by the pandemic
The shift in teaching methodology was the primary hurdle when online classes started. School administrations ramped up efforts to help teachers learn to use digital tools for conducting virtual classes. Teachers from government institutions had to strive harder to ensure that learning was accessible for everyone, given the disparate socioeconomic status of students studying in these schools.
“We had students who did not even know how to create an e-mail address. We took extra effort to identify such students and provide one-on-one instructions to create e-mail ids and Zoom accounts. The next challenge was the Internet connection itself. When the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) announced that they would pay for the recharge of mobile connections on parents’ phones, we made a list of students who were unable to attend classes because they could not afford an internet connection. We shared their mobile numbers and service provider details to ensure that learning happens seamlessly for every student,” says S Ganga Devi, Teacher, Chennai High School, Kottur.
The pandemic was also an opportunity for schools to identify ways to make learning happen. For instance, Maheswari Kalpana, Head Mistress, Chennai High School, Kottur, points out that thanks to the help of the civic body, 80% of the children had a device for attending classes. “But the remaining 20% of students were left behind. It was then that I learnt about crowdfunding and created a fundraiser online. With community support, we met the target sooner than we expected and made sure every single student in our school had a mobile phone,” she adds.
Read more: All that we learnt in 2020 about learning
Fallouts of online classes
The virtual mode of teaching has its positives and negatives, but children learning exclusively through online instruction do miss out on a lot of experiences and life skills development. One such is peer learning, as educationist and retired Head Master Dr P Murugaiyan pointed out at the webinar.
“Peer learning is a complete miss in online education, which happens naturally in the conventional method of teaching. Schools do not just teach subjects but also set the tone for holistic education. In virtual classes, the bond between teachers and students cannot be the same,” he shares.
Teachers also point out that there is a stark difference in teaching methodology. In conventional teaching, activities are integrated with teaching to make complex concepts easier. “In virtual classes, students have to sit in front of the device and listen to teachers speak,” feels Ganga Devi.
“Teachers send books to the parents who come to schools to collect dry rations and asked students to watch Kalvi TV. Although we cannot guarantee we cover 100% students through Kalvi TV, we could say we cover at least 50% students,” said K Thanigaivelu, Assistant Education Officer, GCC.
Read more: Virtual classes for younger kids: An uphill journey for both teachers and parents
Focus on mental well-being
Ensuring mental well-being of students was another stiff challenge that teachers faced.
“As multiple lockdowns were imposed, I realised we were not really connected with the students. We decided to talk to at least five students a day to continue to stay in touch and understand them better. We realised that our students faced a lot of challenges, starting from lack of gadgets to access to quality food. Through community support, we mobilised funds and saw that their basic needs were attended to,” shares Kalpana.
For the students of Chennai High School, teachers became less of teachers and more of counsellors. “We prioritised mental well-being and realised students needed mental strength to face the situation. We conducted counselling sessions for students who were appearing for the class 10 board examinations to ease their stress and give them hope,” Ganga Devi adds.
Blended teaching methodology: The way forward?
Educators unanimously feel that online classes cannot be a replacement for conventional classroom teaching. But one could complement the other. Over these 18 months, teachers have also developed good teaching resources online. While virtual classes need not be exclusively adopted, a blended teaching model could be a win-win situation.
“Besides live and pre-recorded lectures, teachers have gathered a lot of videos and presentations to make concepts simple and engaging. While teachers have gotten used to online classes, we plan to adopt a blended mode of teaching. It requires effective planning, which should be done right at the beginning of the academic year,” added Kalpana.
Read more: “Effective online teaching needs longer preparation, much greater effort; why should it cost less?”
You can watch the entire discussion below:
As schools reopen…
The Department of Public Health of the state has issued a set of detailed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for school reopening, covering the various precautions and safety measures to be taken by schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Read more: School reopening in Tamil Nadu: Standard precautions and safety measures to take
The civic body had organised a mass campaign for vaccinating teaching and non-teaching staff that saw good participation. According to the SOP, schools should work with zonal offices to sanitise their premises and clean storage tanks and sumps.
“We are giving special attention for general monitoring, mentoring and psychological assurance to students. Teachers have also been appointed to oversee and execute these activities,” adds Thanigavelu.
With schools reopening for senior classes, educators wish students for a joyful return to the school without any fear and hope such a situation never occurs.