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How students are attending virtual school

Apart from exposing a digital divide, ‘home delivery of education’ is unfolding differently for different parents

Parth Sharma logging in to his online class from his bedroom in Noida.
Parth Sharma logging in to his online class from his bedroom in Noida.

For the first time in weeks two Sundays ago, I set an alarm for the next morning. Quarantined in our home in Gurugram, we had let our routine relax a bit over spring break. On 30 March, however, we had to be up and somewhat presentable, for our nearly six-year-old son’s school was reopening with a 9am “Morning Circle"—over Google Hangouts.

So, that Monday morning, we logged in hurriedly for a cheerful catch-up with his two teachers and two dozen classmates over a spring song and a storybook about sharing. The excitable kindergarten bunch was warmed up for upcoming sessions on literary, numeracy, music and movement. We had to stick around too, to log him into 20-minute sessions that would take place over the next 3 hours, with breaks in between, when we would be mopping, dusting and cooking.

This was followed by a few creative assignments to be done offline, under our supervision. An app called Teamie, which I have installed on my phone, beeps with notifications on assignments to be sent in; the deadlines, mercifully, are flexible. Within a few days, my husband and I had fallen into the rhythm of a frenetic new normal: juggling virtual work, virtual school, housework and kitchen experiments. A bit of a circus, yes, but the balls are mostly up in the air. So far.

Across the park from our home, architect Shubhra Mutreja Gandhi is nursing serious doubts about the fuss around home-based virtual learning. She has arranged to borrow a laptop from her uncle for her son Shivaan, who started class I last week, to use. What she didn’t anticipate was how much stress it would put on their routine. “At work, I have to manage a team of 30, and in between calls I have to keep logging my son into sessions. I have to also supervise him because he could run off in the middle of a class, or unmute the mic when it’s not his turn to speak. Then, I have to make sure that during the breaks he finishes his worksheets. My sister-in-law, who has two kids with different schedules, is constantly hopping between the kids and the kitchen," she says.

To ease some of the pressure, Gandhi has decided to cook in bulk on weekends. “All that screen time during classes adds up. My niece, who is three-and-a-half-years old, has just started nursery sitting in front of the computer but since she has never met the teachers, never seen the school, it’s hard for her to relate to anything," says Gandhi, who currently parents solo as her husband’s work is in Singapore.

Clearly, virtual learning is unfolding differently for different parents. The younger the child, the more intensive an exercise it is for the parents. At another end of the National Capital Region, in Noida, Shweta Bhagat, a publicist, is rather relieved that her son Parth’s school has begun in earnest—so what if it is online? It works well for the 11-year-old who has just been promoted to class VII and handles gadgets independently.

Every morning, Parth slips into his casual school uniform, a grey “house T shirt" and tracks, and begins his school day with a round of yoga and prayer at 9am, following the instructions sent via voice message from school. He then hooks up his laptop to a TV screen stationed above his study table for four classes to be held on Zoom.

“I am in full support of virtual schooling because this is the future. It’s important for the learning to go on. Kids at this age are highly energetic and sitting around doing nothing would just make them dull," says Bhagat. It also allows a window to social interaction with peers, she emphasizes. Parth concurs: He has been excited about interacting with his new teachers and reconnecting with friends, and a screen between them has not dimmed his enthusiasm.

In Mumbai, Renuka Chettur, who works at the British high commission, is a great believer in routines and structure and a home-based tech-supported learning experience has proved to be just the cure for uncertain times. It has also given parents a greater insight into what and how their children learn, she says. The class teacher sends in art, dance and literacy exercises for the week every Monday through an app. “We see Alisha, who is in senior KG, extremely involved in the activities and given that the user interface of the Seesaw app is so easy, she is able to upload her comments and drawings by herself. It gives us something to look forward to every day," she believes. Working from home has become manageable with a bit of planning.

If schooling from home with one child is a fine balancing act, it is a riskier operation with two. Content consultant Pratibha Pal in Pune has her hands full with her 10-year-old twins Angad and Aryaveer. “My kids haven’t been downstairs for over two weeks and being cooped up at home and having nothing but TV and books can be daunting," she says.

Virtual learning can help, but to support this Pal has had to scale back work, taking up fewer projects. “Currently, the school is testing the waters to see what works so we are being sent home assignments with tutorials, links to online resources and worksheets. From next week, they will increase the load and then managing work, home and academics is going to be crazy," she predicts.

The popularization of virtual learning platforms across cities does, however, expose a deep digital divide, leaving many children behind. Nearly 247 million children currently enrolled in elementary and secondary schools have missed learning for the last three-four weeks, according to a Unicef report. For many, smartphones have become a handy learning tool.

Ravi Raushan, who runs a hardware store in Pandaul, Madhubani, and has a son who studies in class IX at a government school, says: “In the absence of regular classes, my son’s school has requested us to allow him access to the Unnayan app (distance learning software rolled out by Unicef and the Bihar government in December). So I let him use it twice or thrice a day when he catches up on tutorials and lessons. What I like about it is that whenever he has a doubt, he enters a query in the “Feed" tab and the answer pops back very quickly. It’s a good way of supporting his education in a time like this," he says over the phone.

Essentials are running low at the Mumbai home of Trupti Vichare, a yoga instructor, but spirits are high, says the mother of two boys. Omkar studies in class VIII and Pranav in class III. “Their teachers from The Akanksha Foundation have been in touch not just about assignments but also to assure us that food supplies will be sent whenever required. They are also recharging internet packs of the school parent community so we can access the video tutorials and assignments sent over WhatsApp. By 10.30am, my husband, sons and I sit down to study. The children also maintain a gratitude journal. They do their research on the net through their father’s phone and then work on their projects. Last week, we made a poster on the coronavirus. The children also shot some fun videos—doing yoga, making rotis—and sent them to the teachers.

“The school leader, Mandira didi, is always in touch. The teachers regularly conduct video calls with each child separately to check in on them. It’s like home delivery of education," she laughs. She is relieved, she tells me, that the home-school connection over WhatsApp and video calls extends beyond conventional ideas of education and takes into account the entire family’s well being.

It is a time when connections—online and offline—are making many of us rethink what we have learnt. After a day of back-to-back online classes, the school parents WhatsApp group has jokes about how it feels like we are all back in school again. Perhaps we are, inching our way to the chalkboard to deconstruct kindergarten basics, like how “s" blends with “ch", “oo" and then “l", to become “school".

Neha Bhatt is a freelance journalist based in the NCR.

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