Schools across the country have been shut since March 24 when the lockdown was imposed in wake of Covid-19 spread. Since then, students have neither been able to step into their school premises nor many of them have access to infrastructures for online classes. As the distance teaching-learning is not that easy for all, it has hinted that the entire academic session might just go in vain.
Today, everyone is concerned about how students could be encouraged to study, how they can ‘save’ the session from going to waste, and how to make distance learning more effective.
Recently, Onlinekhabar talked to Teach for Nepal co-founder Shishir Khanal to address such concerns. Khanal’s nonprofit organisation has been mobilising its staff at various government schools across the country to assist local teachers.
How do you think students have been exposed to distance education amid the Covid-19 crisis?
It cannot be denied that online classes with two-way communication are more effective. Teachers can give attention to weaker students and teach them accordingly. It is better in comparison to educating people via radio and television with their one-way approach.
But online classes, even in private schools, are not as smooth as hyped in the media. When the lockdown was imposed, we conducted a survey and it did not support that online classes were possible. Interestingly, over 90 per cent of people had mobile phones whereas 50 per cent had a radio. But, only three to four per cent of students had internet access.
Among the ‘cities’ (as categorised by the government), in the Tulsipur sub-metropolitan city of Dang, 98/99 per cent of households had mobile phones, among which 50-55 per cent were smartphones. But, in a community school there, only six per cent had internet access. In comparison, we can imagine the state of rural villages and clearly see the disparity.
Even if we manage to get the pandemic in control immediately, it seems half the academic session will go to waste. If such a situation comes to be, what will be the results?
At the policy level, a student letting a year go to waste means the state losing NRs nine million.
The lockdown will directly affect our nation’s economy. There will be longer effects on academic activities too. For example, if a first grader has to repeat the class, there will be no seat for a new student. This will hinder the primary child development process of a student. There might even be a stage where schools might say they will not take admission until the Covid-19 situation is solved. However, we should take it as an opportunity rather than thinking it is a loss of the academic year, and work on our foundation.
Can you elaborate on how we can capitalise on the pandemic to work on our foundation?
In Tulsipur, we worked with 28,000 students and taught them numeracy and literacy. During that time, we analysed if the eighth graders could solve grade-three maths, English, and Nepali exercises. We found that only 20 per cent knew how to divide. And, their Nepali was good, but their base for English was weak. Students of 15-16 years of age were struggling to read stories from grade-three books. They lacked the vocabulary and an understanding of social studies. Because of these reasons, in comparison to private schools, community schools have poor SEE and grade 12 results.
We found that the problems lie in their foundation. When we do not invest in their early years, the problems become evident later, for example failing classes and dropping out, regardless of the hard work we put in.
It is a bitter truth that teachers lack teaching skills even in physical classes, not just online now. So, during this pandemic, we must focus on building a good foundation and work on their mathematical and language skills for a progressive future. We have to instil eagerness to learn in them and expand their imagination. It may be through stories, poems, or essays. Once the reading habit sets, one can read anything and understand their lessons accordingly.
That seems like a theoretical idea. What can we do to increase the practical learning approach?
I insist on theoretical and practical learning. With Covid-19, teachers should now reach the community level to teach. Because of Covid-19, colleges are closed and we can utilise college students’ time by making them busy in teaching their juniors in their community. I think they would be willing to do so. We can make use of patios, courtyards, temples, etc. and utilise it as a two-way learning approach which will be better than long-distance learning.
We are now being overwhelmed about the nine million school students. So, why should not the local governments take initiative to work with the students locally? The federal system we have should be put to use. And if people are to teach 15-20 students in turns, it is possible and effective.
Or, they can be called in a school as well with one student per bench, that means just 20 per cent of them at a time, and two/three days per week. Or, the same can be worked out in small groups based on their grades and levels of understanding. It is good for foundation building.
What are the possibilities that one can maintain precautionary measures in schools so as to protect everyone from the virus?
There are many districts with zero infection. I only found out after I stepped out of Kathmandu that life is going on normally. It is unfair that only the schools are closed.
I am also not saying that there is no threat, that we should open right away. But if the vaccine is not found, which may be another year or two, we cannot shut the schools till then. The suggested alternative teaching method already seems to be failing. We should open schools following the precautionary measures.
Many ward leaders I have met say there is no infection in their wards. Any outsider is obligated to stay in quarantine for 14 days. I stayed in quarantine when I visited Nawalparasi; the family understood the risk and followed the guidelines strictly. So it is possible that we can manage community-level teaching-learning; we do not have to stop it completely.
Along with the guidelines by the World Health Organisation, the schools have to sanitise the premises daily, maintain distance, and wear masks. If not the families, the schools and if not the schools, the municipalities have to take responsibility for managing soap, water, and sanitiser to resume schools.
The government has paid for health workers’ insurance, and they should do the same for teachers as well. Tulsipur has set an example.
What should be the role of the federal government to not let the academic session go to waste?
The government has announced to mobilise 6,000 youth in various programmes this year. With our experience, we can say that youth mobilisation is more effective. But, we should select only the skilled youth to teach and train them properly to get the desired results.
Teach for Nepal is ready to participate in the initiative as well and share our experiences. But, the government should come forward willingly for the purpose. Distance education is a better choice than sitting idle during the prohibitory period. But, our research shows there is limited access among students and the approach is ineffective. So, we should continue teaching locally.
Along with Covid-19 response, the education sector has also been Kathmandu-centric. Out of 753 municipalities, the majority do not have any case or it is minimal. But, students are being deprived of education. To take the example of Tulsipur, there are 78 total cases with 65 recoveries. Because of the 13 active cases, about 40,000 students are being deprived of education.
Why should not the teachers be allowed to go to villages? Should education in places like Dolpa, Humla, Jumla, Mugu, Mustang, or Solukhumbu be stopped based on the cases seen in Kathmandu, Birgunj, or Biratnagar? The decision of Taplejung should not be made in cubicles inside Singhadurbar.
Education should resume in places where the infection is zero. In places where there is a low infection, resume education partially. If there is a risk, the municipalities can shut the schools immediately.