For schoolkids in Delhi, not quite a happy new year

Virtual school has created stress, uncertainty and confinement for students. But if and when schools do reopen, will parents feel comfortable sending their kids to school?

Renee McPereira is a worried young girl. Her pre-board exams ahead of the 12th standard Central Board of Secondary Examinations (CBSE) exams should normally have been over by now. But now they are slated to begin on January 16th.

The school final exams would normally have begun in March 2021. But as the countdown to an unknown date begins, Renee does not know when they will be held and counts herself lucky that she is in the Arts group and does not have to worry about practicals.

Vaccine or no vaccine, “it is unlikely to be a happy new year for students, parents, teachers—all the stakeholders in the schooling system,” says Goldy Malhotra, former principal of the Modern School, Vasant Vihar, New Delhi. “Much has already changed, beyond just empty classrooms and vacant playgrounds. Children have already got bored with online classes, and teachers are not enjoying teaching.”

Technology will become more important than the lesson itself, say others like Goldy. The love for the subject will wane. Books, paper, writing on the margins will all have gone, they fear.

Renee and her brother Nickhel, an eighth class student, study in Laxman Public School in the plush Hauz Khas locality. The school ranks among the top ten in many rankings of the capital’s schools. Their mother Lagan McPereira is all praise for the online classes.

But she does worry about other aspects. “They miss school and their friends, and all the discipline that comes with children getting up in time, getting ready, and going to school,” says Lagan.

Parents’ fears

Like countless other mothers of school going children, Lagan is anxious as the academic year comes to an end and the exam season begins. Especially when Renee’s exams are held, as she will then have to fill forms and take entrance tests for admission into a college programme of her choice. And most of all, will evaluation be fair and accurate?

When it comes to Nickhel, her worry is different. If and when schools do reopen for real classrooms, will she feel comfortable sending him to school, albeit with a mask, hand sanitiser and repeated instructions that he keep his distance from everyone? As of now, Nickhel has been told he will have final exams in end February and based on the results, he will be promoted.

In March last, the Delhi government had decided that all students upto Class 8 would be promoted to the next level under the no-detention policy of the Right to Education Act. Now, with deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia, who is also in charge of education, announcing that schools will remain shut till there is a vaccine, there is every likelihood of no annual exams and automatic promotion for all students upto class 8 this year too.

But schools are also preparing for the possibility that the Delhi government may decide that students other than those giving board exams too have to take some sort of tests. Some schools plan to stagger face to face exams for junior classes, some intend assessing the students based on their performance in online classes—primarily their response to assignments and their marks based on multiple choice questions sent to them.

But like other things to do with schooling, the CBSE syllabus for 2021-22 has not been decided yet. The earlier Education Ministry note on the revised syllabus had specified that it is only for the academic session 2020-21.

Overall, 2021 will be far from normal for school kids. If there is any light at the end of the tunnel, no one is able to see it. In a virtual interaction with students, parents and teachers across the country on December 10th, Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal, while hoping that students will soon return to their normal school routine, urged them to continue their studies adhering to all the precautions and guidelines on COVID.

But there was nothing in his many answers that hinted at a possible date and protocol for school board exams to be held, though CBSE has said it will be written exams for all.

Earlier, when Unlock 4 guidelines of August 29th had permitted students to visit their schools for guidance from teachers, the Delhi government had decided against it. “We keep getting feedback from parents that they are really concerned about whether it is safe to reopen schools,” said Sisodia. “It is not. Wherever schools have reopened, Covid-19 cases among children have risen. So we have decided that as of now schools in the national capital will remain closed till further orders.”

Sudha Bhatnagar, former principal of Blossoms Sushant Lok, a play school in Gurugram, fully agrees with Sisodia. “Even if they open the schools, parents are not going to send their children,” says Sudha. “Until there is a proven vaccine, and children have been vaccinated, parents are unlikely to send their children to school. Students are definitely going to be stressed out in the coming year—it is not going to be easy for anybody.”

Teacher training

For now, schools and institutions are focussing on streamlining and improving the quality of their online classes. Laxman Public School’s website not only has links to online class schedule and notes, but also to the well-known Khan Academy for online classes for students and Educators, to train teachers on taking online classes.

Khan Academy was founded in 2008 by American educationist and MIT alumnus Salman Khan, 44, with the goal of creating a set of online tools that aid students’ learning. Their website is designed to help teachers and even parents in a fully integrated and interactive way. Those who complete the Khan for Educators course get a completion certification. The course for teachers covers, among other digital teaching skills, how to set up virtual classrooms, create assignments and teach remotely.

In fact, all the big private schools are investing heavily in training their teachers to manage student accounts, manage the class and the roster and creating assignment that give a good student experience, using new, digital oriented teaching methods.

A teacher at one of the big public schools said school managements are now making it mandatory for all teachers to get certified.

Teachers are being trained and tested, and awarded certificates confirming their ability to teach online. Large numbers of teachers are enrolling in online certification programmes. Google, for instance, has a programme called “Google for Education”, with a module for new learners and another for advanced learners. Many other EdTech companies too offer similar courses.

“The certification is evidence of a teacher’s ability to handle online classes digitally,” said Shubha Chakravarti who teaches in a private school in Gurugram. “Teachers will have to be prepared to continue with online classes till WHO says the pandemic is behind us”.

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