Poor internet, limited smartphone users, weather, affects online schooling in Uttarakhand

Even before the schools were shut due to the COVID19 pandemic, the status of education in government schools in the state was dismal. Online schooling has made the matters worse.

Megha Prakash
| Updated: Last updated on August 27th, 2020,

Pratapnagar block in Tehri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand, over 175 kilometres from the state capital Dehradun, has about 6,500 students enrolled for elementary education in government primary schools and junior high schools. In response to the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, schools across the country have switched to online mode of teaching. But, in this block of the Himalayan state, only over 38 per cent students are able to access online education, while more than 60 per cent are deprived of learning.

“Of the total 6,500 kids, only 2,500 are benefitting from online teaching. The remaining 4,000 are unable to study because of non-availability of smartphones or high speed internet connectivity at their homes,” Vinod Matura, block education officer of Pratapnagar told Gaon Connection. Also, mobile phone towers are yet to reach several hill villages. Continuous heavy rainfall and landslides have accentuated the problem further, he added.

The problem of access to online education is not limited to one block or district of Uttarakhand, but is being faced by a large number of students. Poor internet connectivity, limited smartphone users and extreme weather conditions have made online schooling in the COVID-19 pandemic a challenge, both for the students and the teachers.

Matura’s office has collected information on the number of students in the block having access to online schooling using smartphones. It shows a large number of children in far-flung hilly areas are missing out on learning opportunities.

For instance, in Pratapnagar block, out of the total 3,480 students at primary-level, about 1,229 (35 per cent) use their parents’ smartphones. In the case of upper primary schools, of the 1,340 students enrolled, 853 (63 per cent) are using smartphones to attend online school.

Teachers juggling tasks

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, online teaching is not the only task the government school teachers are expected to perform. They are involved in coronavirus tracking duties, distribution of dry ration, etc.

Anuradha Kukreti, a resident of Kotdwar in Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand, has to daily travel about 45 kilometres one way to reach a government primary school in Amola village in Jaiharikhal block where she teaches the village kids.

When the lockdown was imposed in March this year and migrant workers started to return to the state, her school was converted into a COVID-19 quarantine centre and she was deputed to monitor the returnee migrants at the school.

“Our only means of commute in the hill districts is the maxi jeeps, which are also called the lifeline of the hills. But, during the nationwide lockdown, these were off the roads. Hence, travelling to the school was a herculean task”, Kukreti told Gaon Connection.

Whereas the schools have now reopened for online teaching, Kukreti still has to commute and visit the school twice a week for other duties, including distribution of dry ration to school kids in the first week of every month in lieu of their mid-day meals.

Jaimala Bahuguna, another school teacher, caters to the students of three villages – Mehergaon, Supani and Bhyupani — in Srinagar area of Tehri Garhwal. “Though we have created subject groups on WhatsApp, we are also bound to perform additional tasks of managing incoming migrants or report incidences of COVID-19 to the authorities. Most of the times, we are posted at police chowkies, check post and quarantine centres, hence teaching suffers,” Jaimala Bahuguna told Gaon Connection.

“In some villages, young students pursuing B.Sc. or M.Sc., or graduates have returned to their villages due to COVID-19. We are taking their help to assist school students in their village with doubts or lend them their smartphones,” she added.

School teachers are raising concerns over teaching science subjects through smartphones. “It is difficult to take science practical sessions online,” said Nitesh Bahuguna, a science teacher at Government Senior Secondary School, Raithal in Uttarkashi district. The combined strength of class 9 and class 10 students in his school is 35. Of these, 70 per cent are girls.

A common concern of teachers is the challenge to teach subjects like mathematics, physics, and chemistry, all of which require special characters and symbols. “Mathematical equations cannot be taught online,” he said.

Shambhu Nautiyal teaches science to high school children at the Government Inter College, Bankholi, Uttarkashi district and regularly faces problems with solving students’ queries over phone. “If teachers are expected to go to school for book distribution, national day celebrations, releasing dry ration for anganwadi kendra and maintaining official records, then why not allow students to come and get their problems solved by following physical distancing norms,” asked Nautiyal.

In spite of various challenges, teachers are walking an extra mile to make education available to students amid the pandemic. For instance, Aparna Rawat teaches Hindi to students of Government Inter College, Diuala located in Pauri Garhwal’s Paukhal in Dugadda block. Since, the teaching position for a Hindi teacher for class 11 and 12 is not filled, she teaches students from class 7 to 12. She has created a WhatsApp group for students and regularly shares poems, stories and other study material uploaded on YouTube.

“Students who do not have internet connectivity, we reach them through text messages and phone calls. But, internet connectivity and mobile network is a challenge throughout the hill state,” Rawat told Gaon Connection.

Teachers visit villages of children in order to check homework that was given online.

Ramakant Kurketi, teaches Hindi to students of class 11 and class 12 at the Government Inter College, Kanva Ghati in Kotdwar. According to him, of the total 83 students in both the standards, around 50 are connected on apps like Google Mate and WhatsApp. “These students contact me to clear their doubts over phone calls, WhatsApp groups and video calling. But, for the remaining students, I take adequate precautions and try to visit the school for fixed hours and help other students clear their doubts”, he said.

Pratapnagar block in Tehri Garhwal has 122 government primary schools and 32 junior high schools, all of which, except one, are in durgam (difficult terrain, as classified by the state government) areas. The school teachers have created WhatsApp groups where they upload study materials and then follow up with students and their parents over phone calls to ensure kids are learning and completing their weekly tasks.

“We realised due to poor internet connectivity, heavy rains and non-availability of smartphones, online teaching was not sufficient for our children. So, in association with the Azim Premji Foundation, a non-profit that works in the state for improving education, we have developed worksheets. These subject-wise worksheets are printed and are being provided to students in Tehri Garhwal district from the beginning of this month”, Matura told Gaon Connection.  

But, one of the major drawbacks of online schooling is assessing and evaluating how much the child has learnt. To address this issue, the Azim Premji Foundation is trying to train the teachers.

“The worksheets are developed in a way that the learning outcomes can be evaluated. Since, the NCERT books have not been printed and distributed for this session, these worksheets will help the students,” Pramod Painuly explained to Gaon Connection. He is associated with the Azim Premji Foundation and is the district coordinator (elementary education) for Tehri Garhwal.

A quick impact assessment of this exercise in two blocks of Chamba and Narendranagar in Tehri district revealed 90 per cent students were provided these worksheets, and 92 per cent of them returned these worksheets after completing the tasks. 

Parents’ dilemma

The COVID-19 pandemic has lead to a loss of livelihood for millions in rural India. This has caused acute financial stress and parents in villages are finding it difficult to even buy notebooks for their children, let alone smartphones.

On an average, Rs 500 is spent on buying stationary like eraser, sharpener, pencil, and notebooks for seven subjects. Around Rs 800 is the annual expense for upper primary. “If we calculate the expenses to buy seven notebooks for a month, including stationary, it is not more than Rs 100. But, with people losing jobs and no income, few parents have not been able to purchase notebooks for this academic session,” informed Matura.

Even if parents have smartphones, they are reluctant to hand over these gadgets to kids for the fear of their wards spending time playing games on mobile phones or surfing the internet for other objectionable content. It has also been noticed that the girl students are deprived of smartphones by their families due to social taboo.

Some mothers ask me not to send online teaching material during morning hours because they either go to fetch water, or collect fodder and fuel wood. Other are busy cooking and taking care of their cattle,” Anuradha Kukreti, a teacher based in Kotdwar, told Gaon Connection. Besides, in a family with two to three kids, a single smartphone is not sufficient. And with the lockdown being lifted, male members have started migrating for work and families do not have enough money to recharge their phones.

Several parents, mostly daily wage workers or agricultural labourers, request teachers to top-up or recharge their phones enabling their wards to continue online study. “This is very challenging because as a teacher, we can help one student but, if there are many students, even teachers have limited resources,” said Anuradha Kukreti.

Teaching through television

Understanding the many challenges teachers and students were facing in the remote areas of the state, the Uttarakhand government has launched television (TV) programmes offering curated teaching materials and lectures. Soon, Swayam Prabha, an initiative of the Union ministry of human resources development launched in 2017 to provide 32 high quality educational channels through DTH (direct-to-home), will be included by the state government to help the hill students. A mobile app is also being developed, informed Rawat.

But, many districts of Uttarakhand are grappling with extreme weather events like landslides, heavy rainfall and flooding which has disrupted roads, telephone towers and electric poles. This has added fresh challenges to online education.

Sirwari Boonga village in Rudraparag district had a cloud burst on 9 August, which displaced the local villagers, who are at present sheltered at the primary school. “Electric poles and drinking water lines have been damaged. Even to charge mobile phones, we walk to the nearby village. In this situation, online education is not at all feasible”, said Dinesh Rauthan of Sirwari Boonga.

Clearly, residents of hill villages in Uttarakhand are afflicted by a multitude of problems beyond online education in the COVID-19 crisis.