Weeks after the six-year-old Kashmiri girl’s “adorable complaint” made Raj Bhawan to set a 48-hour-long deadline to lighten burden of homework on school kids, analysts are still deliberating its pros and cons.
Glued to a smartphone, Murtaza Rafiq, a Class III student from Srinagar’s R.P School, holds one cushion beneath his legs and another one below his books.
This mandatory mechanical monotony has become a new normal for the nine-year-old studying four-subjects in two-hours.
“I give online classes from 10 to 12 am and I understand everything that my teachers teach,” he said with a smile.
But his mother, Ayesha Rafiq, is not making peace with her son’s online classes. “Our children have not seen schools from the past three years and it’s not normal,” she said.
“Earlier, my son had a balanced schedule. From 9 am to 4 pm, he used to attend his school. From 5 pm to 7 pm, he would go for tuitions. And from 7 pm to 8 pm, he attended his religious classes. Despite following a rigorous routine, he never complained of burden and stress because our kids are used to it. Now without schools and tuitions, it’s very difficult to keep children engaged with books.”
This rigorous indoor routine was lately challenged when a six-year-old Kashmiri girl’s video message to Narendra Modi went viral on social media, forcing Lieutenant Governor of J&K Manoj Sinha to direct the School Education Department to ease the burden of online classes.
Within 24 hours, the school education department directed all schools to reduce online classes to half an hour for pre-primary students and 90 minutes for primary and middle ones.
But before the Covid lockdown paved way to some change, Kashmir had faced constant campus closures due to political clampdowns. On August 5, 2019, when New Delhi stripped J&K’s semi-autonomous status, over 13,600 government and private schools were closed and over 2.5 million students confined to homes. All the communication lines were blocked including the internet.
Despite endless lockdowns, decades of violence and frequent communication blockades, Kashmiri students have always proved their potentials by securing qualified grades every year.
“In 2019, our students did not have any online classes though the concept was already there,” said Prof. Bashir Ahmad, a veteran in the Jammu Kashmir Board of School Education.
“We lacked it [online classes] because the internet was snapped in the region. It was a year of immense loss in the education sector. Now if today, there’s an alternative the administration must execute it holistically. Education is the foundational basis of prosperity. It’s the only way where we can strengthen the institutions for our future generation.”
Schooling in Kashmir, he said, has remained strong for decades not because the erstwhile state has any specific policy but the standard is sophisticated. “Barring south India which subsumes few additional books, the whole country has a uniform education policy and curriculum,” the professor explained.
Educational standard, he said, includes three major aspects—Curriculum, Quality of teachers and Infrastructure. “Kashmir’s educational standard is much efficient if we compare it with north India,” the veteran said.
However, in Kashmir, the professor said, one lacks settled policies on education. For example, there’re proper guidelines by NCERT and GENESCO for online classes that are produced by academicians and experts who understand child psychology “but not a single school in J&K follows those guidelines.”
“Moreover,” he said, “there’re no committees who can monitor our online classes. We don’t have transparency over what’s being taught by teachers and understood by students.”
Amid this policy debate, 5-year-old Aizah Tariq—studying in Saint Lukes School in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district—prefers watching cartoons on YouTube, rather than attending her online classes. Her mother Suheeba Tariq scolds her whenever she caught her watching cartoons.
“Today’s children are more attracted to smartphones,” Suheeba, a banker, says. “While my daughter keeps surfing the internet, I feel the online class is a myth in Kashmir. For more than a month now, the school teacher has been sending the same video daily on WhatsAap which fails to engage my children. Then I ensure to teach them for 3 hours personally after my working hours.”
Due to the pandemic, says GN Var, Kashmir is dealing with an educational emergency.
“But apart from online classes, we don’t have any other option,” Var, Chairman J&K Education Chamber, says. “Therefore, reducing screen time is an illogical move by the government. Since a child develops learning habit at this age, restricting online classes will only affect curriculum. What would these students write in the examination if they will not study and understand their syllabus?”
In developed countries, Var argues, there’s no concept of black and whiteboards. “Students are taught on tabs and digital smart screens. Isn’t that screen time? The administration should understand the difference between good and bad screen time. When you talk about developments like Artificial Intelligence and Digital Learning, it is again a screen. The government should have taken experts onboard before amending the education policy and if it’s so fruitful why isn’t the government applying it to the whole country?”
Lately, a high-level delegation of the Jammu Kashmir Education Council (JKEC) met the Director of School Education Kashmir (DSEK) and submitted a report compiled by a panel of experts regarding the limitation of online classes.
According to the report, researchers reveal that students retain 25-60% more information when learning online compared to only 8-10% in traditional classrooms.
One of the experts namely Roy Anderson from Imperial College London argues in the report that the decision on the timing of online classes should be taken by schools and not by administrators. “And by using all the three important parameters which are auditory, visual and kinesthetic – the education will never suffer.”
Another panel member Dr. Armaan Bhupendra Chourasya recommended that for an average student 4 hours of online education through the laptop or mobile phone is fine.
Further, in a survey conducted by HANS INDIA on spending screen time during online classes, 69% of parents said they were in favour of extending timings.
However, Madan Gopal Sharma, Joint Director in the School Education Department Kashmir told Free Press Kashmir that the government’s move to lessen the screen timing for online classes from 3 hours to 30 minutes was a calculative decision taken after consulting some experts in NCERT, JKBOSE and the teaching staff faculty in the department.
“We will compensate that time by giving home assignments to students,” Sharma said. “Of course, the interaction between teachers and students is important but we’re dealing with a difficult situation. As the numbers of Covid cases are decreasing and if the third wave won’t come we will open the schools soon.”
But psychiatrists say a primary class student is too little to understand the pandemic, disease, and its prevention.
“Even if the situation settles, and later the administration unlock schools, yet primary school students are not mature enough to follow Covid SOPs,” said Dr. Insha, a noted psychiatrist of the valley.
“Therefore, online classes remain the only suitable option to regularize teaching methodology or the government can record and broadcast such classes on television so that students who cannot afford a smartphone or who reside in far-flung areas can access that information.”
Notably, as per J&K’s education profile, there’re 14,171 primary schools, 6,665 upper primary schools, 1,194 high schools, 597 higher secondary schools and 2,700 private schools but only 12 government universities and 50-degree colleges.
Principal in the District Institute of Education and Training (DIET) Srinagar, Tahira Hilal told FPK that the time frame varies for different classes.
For example, she said, till Class 5th, the syllabus is usually less and can be managed in an hour, but above 5th level, the teachers need more time to complete the syllabus.
“The administration should form specific committees who would work for the child-friendly policy without comprising their future,” the principal said.
Whether it be following international regulatory guidelines, or taking the advice of experts seriously, a well thought out education policy is much needed to ensure that education of Kashmiri students does not suffer.