The world community is greatly affected by Covid-19. No country in the world remains untouched. Moreover, it is creating unfavourable and tragic conditions in most countries, and developing countries are among the worst hit.
We can easily see that it badly damaged the world’s economic, social, political, cultural, and educational aspects. In the case of Nepal, the infection rate is still very high. Also, the lockdown created untold sufferings in the daily life of Nepalis, especially for those depending on daily earnings. Moreover, the situation is even worse for those who live in rural areas.
The impact of the coronavirus is being felt widely in the education sector. Due to the virus, educational programmes of schools and universities have fluctuated severely from being closed down to being open. As per decisions of the Ministry of Education, schools have already published the results of the lower classes through internal assessment and the results of class ten were also published through the same method of assessment.
In this context, virtual or online teaching and learning are relevant because of the fear of infection of the virus. Therefore, the schools that are equipped with the resources, such as the rich private schools located in urban centres, are conducting online classes. Unfortunately, here again, it is the poorer Nepalis who live in rural areas and go to government schools that do not have easy and for the majority absolutely no access to internet facilities and/or computers to fully take advantage of online classes.
There are some other challenges too which require the stakeholders to seek options within the situation.
In Nepal, only a limited number of people have smartphones while many people have a normal telephone. Moreover, many who have smartphones do not have the skills to operate all functions of the phone. Even though the internet has been expanded to the villages, it is impossible for the parents who are earning a daily wage to have money to access the internet. Because the electricity service in rural areas fluctuates constantly, charging a cell phone is not always a reliable option.
Another significant challenge for parents who are busy with their survival is earning enough to feed the family daily to manage time for their children’s learning. There are some efforts of teaching by radio and through the use of television, but this is not very effective since there is no feedback possible between the teacher and the student.
Creating Possibilities Nepal, a non-governmental organisation, is working with women and children in the Deukhuri area of the Dang district for the past 13 years. At present, about 550 students of Deukhuri are studying in various schools with educational support. The students’ families are former Kamlaris, who were bonded in the Kamaiya system. Others are from extremely disadvantaged families who still live on a daily wage that has significantly lowered due to the pandemic. They have neither a television nor a smartphone at home. Even if they had a television or a smartphone in their home, buying the internet is a problem as they do not have extra money for it.
Even though internet service providers including Nepal Telecom and Ncell have given discounts on the data, it is a matter of concern to the families who make their living by earning daily wages. In the context of Nepal, the average cost of one GB of data is Rs 260. How is it possible for a family to participate in online classes with such expensive data when these parents earn about 300 to 500 rupees daily?
At present, some school teachers in our Deukhuri working areas are holding meetings. They are planning to run online classes by forming student groups and urging students to participate in the class. This situation means that students are called at home and asked to buy a smartphone or a computer.
For example, three students in a family are studying at different levels. Their online course starts at the same time. The house has one or two smartphones with very limited data. The student’s participation becomes a problem and as well for parents. This situation creates tension between parents and students. Therefore, even if an online class is run, not all students can participate in it. For such reasons, too many students are now forced to leave their studies and help with house chores or work for a daily wage alongside their parents.
Need for options
Because some students participate and others cannot participate in online classes, the gap between the haves and have-nots widens even more than it already is. The consequences for rural students are disastrous and have a long-term effect, dropping out, increasing child labour and child marriages.
Community or government schools have only managed to enrol students while some rural private schools are barely managing online classes. These rural private schools do not have enough resources for online teaching and their teachers are not adequately prepared to teach online classes. The schools’ principals have said that the participation of students in these online classes is low.
The headmaster of a private school in the Deukhuri area says even though 800 students study in his school, only about 250 access online classes. This number is only 24 per cent of the total students, His answer to the question of why there is so few attending online classes is that students do not have a smartphone or have no access to the internet. If the condition of rural private schools is like this, we can imagine for ourselves what the condition of government schools must be like.
Most of the students studying in government schools come from low-income families who fight daily to secure a daily morning and evening meal for their families. As stated, the erratic electricity adds to this overwhelming situation.
At present, there are school teachers in each village. Hence, community classes could be taught by mobilising these teachers. In addition, schools can use upper-class students to help conduct classes since the local people know about the situation in the village. Last year, community classes taught in various places were fairly successful and thus a vivid example of a possible solution to this crisis.
Education is a natural right of all children. Therefore, it is the responsibility of all of us to guarantee them that right.
The authors are NGO activists associated with Creating Possibilities in Nepal.