It has been a decade full of intermittent network blockades and almost a year full of crisis schooling for children in Kashmir. As an educator, a Principal and a mother, dedicated to providing reformative education to children in Pulwama, Kashmir, I speak for what looks like a life-changing time for children across the world today, founding my views in lived experiences and the basics of systems design practice.
There has never been a better time and a more urgent need to rethink the purpose of schools, and to rearrange our priorities in order for schooling to be truly educational, inclusive and diversely empowering. However, it is imperative to understand that although we are all in the pandemic together and have had a fairly long experience of a lockdown, we are NOT all a Kashmir now. No, our children do not know what children in Kashmir(and all conflicted territories) feel during and between lockdowns. The frequency of lockdowns and the gravity of each have altered their habits of thinking, doing, living. Online classes, the only plausible response so far to the challenge of learning, has found itself un-inclusive of the most vulnerable - of those children feeling increasingly threatened by exposure of personal space online, and of those from humble families, holding ‘non-smart’ phones in their hands, clueless in the conundrum of the world wide web.
Contextual quick facts:
Pulwama and Shopian are two of the most volatile districts in south Kashmir.
Most districts in Kashmir face economic slow downs each year due to lockdowns and hence standard of living isn’t high enough to afford multiple equipped smart phones, laptops, or wifi. In many households, especially in conflict impacted areas of South and North Kashmir, many siblings share one phone between 3, with the parent having to compromise on work. Mostly one of them takes the hit and misses class.
Most students complain of time wastage due to low bandwidth internet and a horde of new applications to explore.
Parents feel inadequate for: not being equipped to help their children learn, not being able to find a means to save their businesses, which are now on the verge of shutting down.
Survival of the privileged
“Ma’am I called and counselled every child in my class, most of them sounded dejected and disoriented. Not being able to catch up with their academics and not a single channel open for recreation is upsetting. They’re starting to lose patience. What more can we do? How do we measure their emotional growth?” - teacher at Dolphin International school, Pulwama.
I run Dolphin International School with close to 1000 students from Pulwama and Shopian and a staff of about 70 teachers. We understood the need for our children to learn remotely with supportive technology way before the pandemic locked us in our homes. Yes, we too used the virtual space, whenever available and mended our ways to their needs. Yes, virtual learning has emerged as an essential tool for the year to come and Yes, it will be the only alternative medium for collaborative learning for a while. But we are increasingly finding ourselves in newer challenges. From cyber safety to invasion of privacy, from blurring respect for virtual distance to compulsive use of accessibility, we are entangled in this transition of the world of internet into being an enabler of collective existence.
But is it going to cater to all encompassed? Will it include the immeasurable in assessments? Will it empower the marginalised to persist despite the speeding reforms in instructional patterns? Will it empower soft influencers (parents, guides, guardians) to provide tangible support? Will it wait for the illiterate to learn before it leaps to its next advancement. Can everyone in physical contact with learners be a facilitator, equipped with tools and a natural ability to respond to curiosity? And most importantly, do we understand our geographical, political, economic and social contexts well enough, before we try to force-fit the new virtual solution for all schools? Evidence supports that the unfortunate answer to these questions is a deafening NO.
What does it mean for a Kashmiri student?
I recently came across a hackathon inviting children to participate in an online workshop on finding a solution for the impact of COVID 19 on education. What an exciting idea to involve the primary stake holders of the problem in solution making. Like any other teacher would, I reached out to my students and insisted them to represent Kashmir on it for two major reasons: to make sure their unique challenges are addressed and to let the fellow participants get a first person view of life in Kashmir. My children registered when internet got restored. Internet was snapped again the next day (may 6th) and mobile network disabled. Now they hang in uncertainty, not sure how to continue their learning sessions again (mobile network was restored yesterday May 12th with 2g internet everywhere except Pulwama and Shopian). This is ‘the normal’ for a Kashmiri student. This uncertainty blurs the time and motivation for them to engage in anything beyond basics. Students in main town Srinagar may find more access than a student living in far-flung districts. But their urge to learn has always been the same. If only they didn’t have to bare the brunt of what happens politically. If only their government knew better than to snap communication soon as a security concern arose. After all, children in Kashmir know that the Indian armed forces are large enough in number to manage security. And besides, a child on the margins, anywhere, dreams of access, of inclusion, of acknowledgement and empathy. A child believes in democracy and believes that her government will think about her growth and her rights.
One of my children once said, “Ma’am I feel a stone weighing me down, when I try to push my will to study at home. This is our way of life, we’ve got to live with it.”
How would you help the dying of a spirit, of dreams, of motivation or of optimism?
Solution of paradoxes
“Ma’am, I gave my child my phone to attend the session on time, but the call kept getting disconnected. It made her restless and she cried. I did not know what to tell her. What more could I have done on 2g speed? How do I convince her to try again?”
For a child in Pulwama and Shopian, dependent on the ONLY member in the family with a smart phone free to use for online classes, 2 other siblings fighting for the same, and a network speed of snail, can it get more difficult? While on one hand, the central government continues to extend network restrictions despite multiple pleas, on the other hand, state administration mandates all schools to conduct online classes. While teachers work relentlessly to be available for interactive learning online, parents plead them to stop online sessions and switch to downloadable low resolution video lectures, because of the exhaustingly slow network. Multiple petitions highlight the issue, but the restriction stays unaffected.
Feeling neglected, unheard, helpless, exhausted and alienated, children in Kashmir grow up with a strong sense of disconnect, anger and desperation. The daily fight for basics and the fear of losing access at any time, plays as a constant noise, deafening their ears to the sound of hope. With little or no means for recreation in most districts of Kashmir due to the overpowering turmoil, schools become the only space for social, emotional, psychological release.
A ban on students going to school, takes away from them even this.
Schools as drivers of a collective purpose
Schools in Kashmir act as catalysts for expanding world-views, analysing complexities, problem solving together, and realising that lives can exist beyond conflict. Children in Kashmir go to school to feel connected with an aspired reality, with their dreams for their future, and with their friends that uplift them. For children in Pulwama, schools validate talents, offer alternate perspectives, take minds off the noise of gun battles, give open grounds to play, and provide resources to make meaning. Schools are a quintessential part of children’s social fabric and are never merely academic institutions.
So the physical presence of an inspiring teacher and the discipline of a routine, which is generally compromised, stand as the most important aspects of schooling. Besides, freedom of expression and exploration on a co-owned campus, the sense of identity to take pride in, and the touch of their friends everyday, are equally essential enablers of their intellectual growth and emotional well-being. Children are assets of the future and we expect them give back to the society later. But this is impossible without the means of growth disrupted and denied.
Solution in perspective
Children are distressed, and however comprehensive a virtual experience is, it can not compensate the social, emotional and academic compromise it takes. So the questions to ask as educators are -
will the continued ban on students going to school ease a problem, but create three more?
Will it advance us technologically, but regress educational systems to emotional isolation?
Will it boost social conscience but leave us enslaved to the new digital gods?
Will it benefit digital solutions, but leave behind the grassroots doers? Will we again end up leaving education to the end of our list of urgencies and will we watch our potential human capital grow precariously?
Or will we teach our children how to co-create a safe space for each other and continue living with better habits for self and surrounding?
While for many urban schools learning has easily shifted online, many and more in rural spaces still struggle to find ways through many ground challenges. Only 40% students in Pulwama still attend online classes amidst economic and technological roadblocks. Only 50% parents can afford to give away their phones to their children for long hours. Most parents can’t afford forced expenditures on smart phones and data packs. And even if they do, they struggle to perceive the benefit of virtual interaction in learning. With weak cashflow and limited purview of the online learning systems, parents have been found defaulting their fee dues to school. Budget private schools in such a scenario have no means to pay their employees, meet fixed expenditures and plan for the future. And hence they drown in debts or close down.
Solution of possibilities
Schools in Kashmir have opened for merely 3 weeks in the last 9 months. Continuing lockdown will result in dented career paths and increased blurring of hope for our children. So opening access to schools is imperative.
So here’s a way I propose schools can run at maximum potential:
Sanitising campus, transport vehicles thoroughly each day before opening and after closing.
Strict guidelines on hygiene and distancing to be provided for school teams and administrative volunteers to follow and inspect regularly
All students NOT to be called to school at the same time. Students to be divided in smaller groups and all classrooms on campus to be used to spread them out.
Grades can be alternated such that each grade comes to school not more than 3 times a week.
A combination of virtual and physical classes to be implemented. Time on campus to be utilised more for peer learning, doubt clearance, practical learning, lab time, trauma support, special learning needs, progress assessment and pushing towards developing a habit of the mind to observe hygiene and distancing norms as a way of life for a while.
Parents to be sent well structured material for awareness on students’ learning and COVID 19.
Friendship schooling a way forward
With the widening of the virtual space, it is easier now for schools to work as clusters rather than individual entities. Our contexts may be different but purpose remains constant. It is time we come together to give and receive support.
Schools with significantly higher privilege can share resources to the ones with lesser access. Buddy learning between school students across states can be encouraged such that students with limited access to internet still have a buddy to keep their connection with the world intact.
There’s a lot we can make the world do, if we only start asking it the right questions.