SRINAGAR: Her school is shut but back home she is holding her books, a calculator, a notebook and a ballpoint pen to study under lockdown. Inside her house in north Kashmir there is no smartphone, no television, not even a radio set.

While people and their government brag about online education, Nasreena Palal, a 10th class student in Koil Muqam, Bandipora has no idea what it means. On March 30 Nasreena didn’t know what to say when her teacher called her about the online study material her school had prepared.

She says she didn’t dare ask her teacher how to receive study material online. “I don’t have a mobile phone, so my teacher called on my mother’s phone, informing me to receive the study material on the internet. I shivered could not ask her how to get it,” says Nasreena in a timid voice.

For years together her family could not afford to purchase a mobile phone. It was only five years ago that her mother Zohra Banoo managed to get a basic phone, on which the entire family now relies to make calls to friends and relatives. The phone provides service to four family members, except their father who died 11 years ago.

Nasreena was a kindergarten student when, on 12 May 2009, her father died of cardiac arrest. Since then her mother has been “toiling” to provide education to Nasreena and her two siblings. “Our mother has given us everything she could, but I know she can’t afford to give me a simple phone, let alone a smartphone,” shares a moody Nasreena.

Amid the COVID19 pandemic as educational institutes shift focus to online teaching, one thing is clear: financially poor students will not be able to enter these virtual classrooms.

Most students from economically weak families are enrolled in government schools, but government teachers have passed the same order for their students, who despite having no online resources are being asked to download study material from the internet.

One such example is Faizan Mushtaq Dar, who lives in Satura, Tral, south Kashmir. A class 12 student at the Satura Government Higher Secondary School, Dar doesn’t have a smartphone that will let him attend his teacher’s lectures on “Zoom”.

Every morning he must plead with his cousin brother to borrow his phone and join the online learning process. “I can’t afford a phone and in the current situation I use my cousin’s phone. Often I miss attending classes because my cousin is also a student who also has to attend virtual class,” says Dar.

His father Mushtaq Ahmad Dar is a labourer, and the family has only a basic phone for making calls.

The government claims to have provided 2,500 low-budget educational tablets to students of class 10 and 12 to enhance their virtual learning experience.

A lecturer without revealing his name asked how 2,500 tablets, which the government claims are loaded with textbooks, problem-solving techniques and other study material, can solve the problem for the tens of thousands of students enrolled in government schools.

These days both private and government schools have switched to the social media to reach out to students amid the ongoing nationwide lockdown.

The closure of educational institutions has kept many students confined to their homes and aloof from the classroom culture for a while now. Meanwhile, virtual classes are being conducted using software programes like WhatsApp, Zoom Cloud, Skype and Google Classroom, for those who can access them.

Without a proper government policy in place, school authorities have created a new norm of sending online study material to students. Parents blame school authorities for passing orders initiating online education seemingly without realising circumstances like students’ young age, lack of internet access, and their social-economic status.

School authorities, they say, have simply taken an arbitrary decision. Parents mainly from rural belts in Kashmir complained that they are living hand to mouth, and cannot afford to buy a smartphone for their children. Many also said they are struggling to find proper bread in the ongoing situation, and cannot spend money on internet data packs.

A number of these parents are illiterate, and do not understand the concept of WhatsApp education. They do not even know how to use a mobile phone.

In the absence of a smartphone Azaan Bashir Baba, a 6th standard student from Habak, Srinagar must also borrow a phone from his cousin sister to download study material off WhatsApp.

Azaan, 12, doesn’t know how to use the internet or even a mobile phone. His cousin downloads the material for him and hands it over later, transcribed in a notebook.

A student of the Firdous Educational Institute in Zakoora, Hazratbal, Azaan was asked by school management to download the study material on WhatsApp. But he says he doesn’t know how to read on a phone.

Students of the Presentation Convent in Rajbagh, Mallinson, and Burn Hall have similar stories to tell. On condition of anonymity they said the school managements’ decision to start online classes is fruitless.

A 9th standard student of Presentation Convent said she was asked by her teachers to join online classes on the Zoom app. “Due to low internet speed the video buffers regularly and a lot of information is missed. The idea of online education under the present situation is nothing but sheltering their school fee from parents,” she said.

People rued that online education is hampered in Jammu and Kashmir due to the lack of high speed internet connectivity. Even when teachers are able to upload video lectures, PDF books, assignments or large documents, students aren’t able to download them.

Saima Hamid Baba, a research scholar in biochemistry at the University of Kashmir says that school authorities are asking students to view lectures on YouTube, “but the slow internet speed plays spoilsport, leaving students in the dark.”

Since the lockdown he has been tutoring his cousins at home.

The miseries of teachers do not end here. Many private school teachers have been denied their salaries for the past several months. “We have been fulfilling our duties, first offline and now online, but there is no salary for the past nine months. The school management have taken us for a ride,” said a private school teacher from south Kashmir.

He requested anonymity for fear that the school management may fire him.

In another case a well-known school in Srinagar city last week dismissed at least 20 teachers who refused to use the ‘Zoom’ video conferencing application, following reports that it was vulnerable to hackers.

The management of the Green Valley Educational Institute in Ellahi Bagh, Srinagar served termination notices to at least 20 teachers, mostly women, for expressing apprehensions about the widely reported privacy and security issues flagged by users of Zoom.

From a long time now teachers as well as students have been pressing for the full restoration of 4G mobile service in Jammu and Kashmir.

Last week the Private Schools Association of J&K condemned the government’s lack of action in restoring 4G services in the Valley, saying that educational institutes can’t wait endlessly for the situation to “normalise”.

In a statement issued to a local wire service, G.N. Var, president of the association said: “Many of our schools have invested in different professional educational software, which is both secure and compatible for classes, but which needs high-speed 4G internet. And the government is in no mood to give that to us.”

He added, “We even went to the Supreme Court for the restoration of 4G, but still nothing is happening. It seems the government is playing with the careers of lakhs of students.”

High-speed internet service in Jammu and Kashmir is barred since August 5 last year, when the Centre revoked the erstwhile state’s special status under Article 370 of the Constitution. While there has been a gradual easing of communication restrictions since, high-speed 3G and 4G continue to be banned.

When contacted, director of school education in Kashmir, Mohammad Younis Malik said the matter would be looked into. He further said that resource persons of the department have started teleclasses broadcast on Doordarshan every day from 4 to 5.30 pm.

Malik added that teachers and students have been guided to access e-content on the government’s DIKSHA portal, as well as content on the NCERT’s e-Pathshala.

Cover Photo: An empty class room as government orders shut down all schools across Jammu and Kashmir. BASIT ZARGAR / The Citizen