Bright blue skies, lush green groves dotted with pine trees and a gurgling stream nearby – this is the new classroom for students in the Katainwali village of Baramullah district, where schools have been shut since March 25 following the nationwide Coronavirus lockdown. Similar community classes are being conducted in villages of Kulgam, Pulwama and Shopian districts of Kashmir as a ban on internet services has made online classes impossible.
It is the government school teachers who have taken upon themselves the task of imparting education through community classrooms while maintaining social distancing to ensure that students don’t lag behind in studies due to the lockdown.
For those who can afford smartphones, frequent internet shutdowns and low speed internet plays a spoilsport. TV also requires electricity, which is unreliable in these areas,” he adds.
A welcome alternative classroom
It was just before Eid-ul-Fitr this year that Ahmad received his monthly salary. “For the first time, I wasn’t happy. I get my salary to teach students for at least six hours a day from Monday to Saturday. But in March when students in Kashmir went to school after seven months, the classes lasted only 20 days and then the lockdown was imposed. That set me thinking on ways to re-start classes,” he says.
It was then that the idea of community classes struck him, where local school teachers collaborate and teach students in an open ground. He started the initiative along with seven other teachers in his village.
There are three schools with 300 students in Katainwali. "Our village has a lot of open grounds. We have divided these grounds into classrooms. The ground close to the Mosque is for class 10th students and the ground close to Panchayat Ghar is for class 9th,” Tariq says.
The main occupation of people in these remote villages is cattle rearing. So the male members of families keep moving with their cattle for grazing. This year, since the schools were shut, they took children along with them.
"Many students left with their family members for cattle rearing because the schools were closed. We decided to start the classes before others could leave,” says Parvaiz Ahmad, another teacher.
Soon, the community class idea became a hit in many remote villages of Kulgam, Pulwama and Shopian. In Sangerwani village, which lies between the borders of district Pulwama and Shopian, Ab Rahman Teadwa, a teacher at the government high school, along with other nine teachers, went door-to-door to create awareness among parents and students about the community classes.
"Parents were worried about the safety of their kids due to COVID-19. So we assured each one of them about maintaining social distancing. Now we teach almost 200 students daily,” Rahman says.
Not only poor students from government schools but children from private schools also attend community classes in Sangerwani.
Making up for lost time
Rahman and his colleagues take extra classes to cover up for the lost time. The classes start at 8am and end around 2pm. But the teachers don't leave till 4pm.
"Our students lost a lot of time last year as well as this year. Recently their first term exams were held but they haven't covered the whole syllabus for the first term. So we started the extra classes. Students need to learn even though they do not have to give exams again,” he adds.
In Chakh Badrinath village of Pulwama district, teachers of Government High School and Primary School teach 275 students daily among the woods just like DH Pora village in Kulgam and Chitragul village in Anantnag.
Happy students, relieved parents
Students in Kashmir have been away from schools since August 5 last year after the abrogation of Article 370 followed by the COVID-19 lockdown. But both students and parents are now more than happy that schools are functioning once again.
Most of the students wear their school uniforms despite the absence of a formal set-up. "We neither have a smartphone nor a TV. I only have books and a uniform and I wanted to use them both. I missed going to school, coming back home and doing my homework,” Bazila, a class 10th student, says.
“Last year I was in 9th and without even completing the syllabus of class 9th, this year I am in 10th. We are poor and we cannot study anywhere except in schools,” she adds.
In these schools, proper social distancing is being maintained. The teachers also educate students about coronavirus and how they can protect themselves and their families from COVID-19. Teachers also bring sanitisers for the students.
"Most of the people in these areas are illiterate. So they didn't know much about the virus. In the very first class, we told the children about COVID-19 and told them to educate their parents. The result is that everyone now wears a mask, follows social distancing and washes hands regularly,” another teacher says.
This community school initiative might have solved a problem for many students but those in higher classes still struggle to study due to frequent internet shutdowns and low speed internet in rural areas and no connectivity in far flung areas.
In such circumstances, community schools have become the guiding light for many students who would have otherwise opted to rear cattle with their families.
(Rouf Fida is a Kashmir-based multimedia journalist. He is the Editor of news portal 'Curtain Raiser')