With a heavy heart, we shut down the school in the second week of March as per the Government directive, with no clue as to when we could open up again.
Though the school was physically shut, we never really lost touch with the children at all. We were constantly calling the parents, reassuring them, asking them not to panic. Many of them had lost their jobs, and were unsure whether they should attempt to return to their hometowns. Our team of volunteers convinced them to stay back, arranged for food drives and counselled them in whatever way they could.
As the summer wore on and private schools made plans to start online classes, we thought – ‘Why not we too? The students don’t have laptops, but most should have smartphones, right?’ And so we started a survey to check how many of the students had smartphones and could participate. To our delight, we realised that barring a couple, all the households had at least one smartphone, and the students were very excited about the idea of attending school on the phone!
We got started by creating digital content mirroring our offline syllabus so that the teachers / volunteers could access the content and also share it with the students. Next, each of the volunteers divided up the children and took responsibility for teaching 4 to 5 students each. We called the parents, explained to them about how the online classes would work. Just like students in private schools, these students, too had be guided about how to use technology safely and effectively for the online classes. Where phone lessons were lacking, in person training ensured that the tech challenges were dealt with swiftly.
The enthusiasm of the children in learning the new way to school was simply amazing. They quickly came up to speed on every aspect of using the phone for the online class, and it was a delight for us to be able to see and speak to them again. The only app they were used to was WhatsApp, but it took them no time to get up to speed on how to join the online classes and use all the features on that app.
Though the children were delighted to be getting back into a virtual class and connecting with the teachers and each other, the journey wasn’t all roses. They couldn’t read much English, so all offline instructions about the classes had to be in the form of voice messages. Another challenge was discipline. Getting them to come punctually and regularly, ensuring a quiet and well-lit ambience for the class, sitting quietly and undistracted for the duration of the call, all were lacking initially. So we made regular calls to the parents explaining to them that the home environment had to become the school environment, for the moment, at least. To the students, we asked them to mentally tune themselves to being at school, by asking them to wear the uniform, come to ‘class’ with the fully packed school bag, and sitting down in one place for the entire duration of the call. Gradually, the students got into the groove of things. It was a great experience for both the students and the teachers. In order to track progress, we prepared a tracking sheet to capture attendance, homework given and progress for each student.
There continue to be challenges. Sometimes the network is patchy, sometimes the home atmosphere is very noisy or dark, sometimes the phone itself is not available as the parent is still at work. But we have definitely set the ball rolling in terms of a routine and the students are settling in to a better discipline. We have a long way to go in terms of completion of our beginning-of-the-year academic targets, but for now, we are happy to connect to the students and keep the school habit going.
We are in the process of trying an experiment where we are trying to overcome these challenges. We have arranged for a laptop and internet access in the school premises. We call very small groups of children and use the laptop for our online classes. In this way, the students’ dependence on the parents’ phone and network issues are resolved. Discipline and punctuality too can be maintained. Needless to say, all safety precautions are being taken.
At the time of publishing this blog, we have been informed that there is a case of infection in that settlement. Hence the in-premises classes have been suspended for now.
At the moment, we have not been able to start classes for the littlest ones due to various reasons, but hopefully, that can be under way too, in the near future.
Swapaksh (https://swapaksh.org/about/) is an NPO (Non-Profit Organisation) working with underprivileged migrant children who are unable to attend regular school as of now. It has a team of volunteers and teachers working with children between the ages of 5 and 15. Started purely with donor funding, it has grown from 1 small room in the settlement itself to a learning institute with 4 rooms (and as many age-groups) where kids have their own desks, books and stationery.
However, we are still a long way from achieving our dream of an institution which has all the infrastructure needed to support 80 children. Currently the premises we are using lack basic facilities. There are no toilets, continuous electricity or internet. Funds are also needed for running expenses like room rents, teachers’ salaries, teaching aids and stationery.
During these times of the pandemic, there are a whole new set of resource challenges around digital infrastructure. We are taking classes on video-conferencing using Zoom. But most of the students’ houses have only one smartphone, and if the parent is carrying it to work, the children are unable to join the class held on video conferencing.
You can make a difference to the lives of these children. Please visit our website to learn more about our work. You can also make a contribution to the institute. All donations are eligible for a tax deduction under section 80G.