Education interrupted: COVID-19 throws spanner in works of enrolments at Mumbai's public schools

Mumbai: The COVID-19 pandemic and resultant problems like mass migration, job losses and even lack of digital access clearly seem to have impacted the education of poor students of Mumbai, who are dependent on the municipal schools. The BMC schools have seen a six percent drop in enrolments this year with only 2,48,277, as compared to the 2,63,180 enrollments last year — a difference of 14,903 students.

Around four percent of students — ie 19,736 students — have left the education system in Mumbai this academic year; the BMC has registered only 6,00,811 enrolments this year as compared to the 6,20,547 enrolments in the last academic year in primary municipal, private-aided and primary unaided schools in Mumbai.

The BMC's education officer Mahesh Palkar said that while the number of students in the primary and secondary section had reduced, the number of students enrolled in Classes 9 and 10 had actually increased from 33,472 students enrolled last year to 34,538 this year.

The BMC schools had started with online education from 15 June. The municipal corporation's own survey had revealed that around 40 percent of students do not have access to Android devices to access online education. While 64,290 students do not have Android phones, 38,122 students lack internet access. The BMC is working hard to keep education going for those students lacking digital devices. Those without internet access are sent links on WhatsApp, which can be opened at their own convenience.

"We also call up students and clear doubts on the phone for those students who don't have smartphones. We also take classes in the evening for some students who have access to phones only in the evenings after their parents return from work," a BMC teacher stated on the condition of anonymity.

The BMC is also trying to provide hard copy worksheets for students with no digital access. The BMC has already provided students with textbooks and notebooks, and students are asked to complete them at their homes. These completed worksheets are either to be submitted to the schools directly or via local community volunteer networks. Teachers visit schools a few times in a week to assess these worksheets and assess learning outcomes.

A Pratham telephonic survey conducted in July 2020 of around 11,084 students from 52 BMC schools found that about 40 percent of students were not contactable on the phone due to reasons like being out of network area, their phones not being in service or not being recharged or just wrong numbers. Also, around 1,500 students among those contacted were unable to receive digital study content from schools due to issues like non-availability of smartphones or no access to phones as parents would carry them to work, or simply no data packs.

Palkar said that the BMC was trying to track and reach out to 17,933 BMC students, who were completely out of touch and were trying to track them with the help of non-governmental organisations.

"There is a probability of many students, especially girls, having dropped out due to concerns over COVID-19 or the economic slowdown. There is a genuine concern of children being pushed into child labour or early marriages. We are working to track those students with the help of neighbourhood and community volunteers," said Farida Lambay, co-founder of Pratham, which has been working closely with the BMC on various educational issues.

NGOs like Project Mumbai are now working with BMC in an effort to  provide internet access to needy students through crowd-funding options. Founder and CEO, Shishir Joshi is in talks with mobile service providers to work out on a concessional data pack that could be sponsored for students for the rest six months of academic term left till March for needy students as identified by BMC. He acknowledges that an equally pressing need is to providing Android devices to those who do not have any devices at all.

That would require more funds and Joshi and his team "are trying to bridge the gap wherever feasible". He found that sourcing second-hand devices for students was not an ideal solution as most devices tend to be donated only after being used up past their optimum capacity and thus could fail to serve the students well. The likelihood of a second-hand phone developing faults is high and repairing them would be an additional burden, he felt.

The BMC teachers have also been asked to visit students at their homes to identify challenges in accessing online education and even to coordinate with local social activists to resolve network and device problems.

Teachers are being asked to contact students, untraceable or unreachable on phones with the help of Palak Mitra (parents or neighbourhood elders of students), Balak Mitra (siblings of friends of students), Teacher Mitra (with teachers in the locality) or even NGO Mitra (local grassroot organisations).

"How can teachers be asked to visit students at their homes in these times when the number of COVID-19 cases is on the rise in Mumbai and there is apprehension among people about entertaining visitors? Most teachers complain that students are hardly able to grasp their lessons while attending classes amidst their household disturbances. Barely 10 percent of our poor students have digital devices or the internet. The BMC is clearly interested in only showing off their attempts to teach rather than the actual teaching process. Teachers are also asked to visit schools without due sanitisation protocols being followed in schools," claimed Govind Dhavale, general secretary of the Mahapalika Madhyamik Shikshak Shikshaketar Karmachari Sena.

Currently, around 508 representatives of various NGOs are working with the BMC in various capacities to help educate students.

For students like Saroj Chorotiya, a 13-year-old student, a data pack and an additional device will be very useful. Saroj’s father works as a shoemaker and the entire family had migrated to their Rajasthan hometown soon after the pandemic spread in March. She and her two siblings in Classes 5 and 6 accessed classes in Rajasthan using their solitary phone and a 1 GB data pack.

Her father Sethuraman Chorotiya says that he leaves his phone home even when he steps out in search of work since it is always in use at home either for attending classes or doing homework by his three children. He has recharged it with around Rs 600 for over 84 days, but now doesn't know how he will manage to do so the next time around since his work at Mumbai has not yet started.  Saroj says that a single gigabyte of data a day is barely sufficient for all three siblings.

Activists like Bilal Khan of the Helping Hands Charitable Welfare and Educational Trust, who was very actively involved in helping out migrants in Mumbai, said that forcing municipal students into online education by the government is not just unfair but also illegal.

"Under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, the government is supposed to provide free education to students till the age of 14. Online education is a violation of this Act since providing online education without providing them with the resources to access them is also a form of denial of education. Just as the government provides studying paraphernalia like textbooks and other materials, they should also provide students with devices and internet connection to access their education now," added Khan.



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