‘Still tracing lost children to bring them back to the world of learning’

A girl, who does not have access to internet facilities and gadgets, uses a microscope as she attends an open-air class outside a house with its walls converted into black boards following the closure of their schools due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Joba Attpara village in Paschim Bardhaman district in West Bengal, on September 13, 2021. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

When schools in West Bengal reopened for offline classes around the middle of February this year after a pandemic-forced closure of nearly two years, Swarupa Mondal Gomes, Headmistress of Kolkata’s Lee Memorial Girls’ High School, found that several of the students hadn’t joined back.

“Even one child lost and left untraced is a guilt upon us. The thought of what might have happened to them, their safety and security — it worries us. These children come from the least privileged backgrounds of society, and them dropping out points to our responsibility towards society as educators,” said Dr. Mondal Gomes, whose concern is representative of that faced by government-aided schools across Kolkata and West Bengal. 

While for students of private schools, the mode of education merely shifted from the offline to online mode once lockdowns began to be enforced due to COVID-19, the students of government-run schools, with hardly any access to smartphones or networks, had no such luxury. For them, the prolonged closure meant a prolonged break from learning, leading to many dropping out. Lee Memorial Girls’ High School alone has lost at least 25 students.

“Due to the confinement at home, these children lost over 20 months of school days and learning atmosphere. Since they come mainly from not-so-financially-sound backgrounds, online learning was not very effective as many students were unable to attend classes due to lack of any digital device at their disposal,” Dr. Mondal Gomes said.

“They lost track of studies and some of them were completely lost from our reach and still are. We were unable to communicate with them. Their parents had lost their livelihood and were financially distressed. Education, for them, turned into a luxury beyond their reach. In some cases, their parents separated, each choosing their own way and refusing to take responsibility of the child. We heard about a few being left at the care of grandparents or some relative. A few of them became child labourers. Two of them were married off,” she added.

“In fact, once offline classes resumed, very few children were back to school at first. It required a lot of phone calls to parents, convincing them that their children would be safe in school. The children too, it was observed, had become very reluctant to come back to school and stay confined for so many hours at a stretch. They had lost their attention span. Concentration was very low,” she explained.

“Many children had migrated back to villages as their families found it very difficult to sustain themselves in the city. Transfer certificates were not collected. Their parents didn’t want to pick up the phones,” Dr. Mondal Gomes said.

“Today, the teachers are working hard to keep the children engaged. They have lost the habit of writing at a stretch. Some appear withdrawn. Learning gap has widened. It’s a difficult path ahead for us. However, the most difficult task is to trace the lost children back and bring them to the world of education and learning,” she said.

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2022 5:10:11 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/still-tracing-lost-children-to-bring-them-back-to-the-world-of-learning/article65347931.ece