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Back-to-school jitters in the Kashmir Valley

CRPF personnel stand guard as children walk to school in Srinagar on February 24, 2020.

CRPF personnel stand guard as children walk to school in Srinagar on February 24, 2020.   | Photo Credit: NISSAR AHMAD

After a seven-month break caused by the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and the consequent shutdown of the Valley, students returned to school on February 24. Peerzada Ashiq reports on their stuggle to catch up just before schools closed again in the face of the novel coronavirus threat

Dressed in green sweaters, grey pants and blue ties, Shahid Bashir and Abid Nabi, both in Class 9, raced down the narrow, rickety stairs of Sir Syed Islamia Mission High School on February 24. Private schools in Kashmir Valley were decked up to welcome the children after a long, forced break: candy stalls were set up and motivational quotes painted on the walls.

The thud of school shoes is a familiar sound to everyone, but in Srinagar it was music to the ears. The students were excited; they were returning to school after 202 days, or nearly seven months. Instead of disciplining them, the teachers chose to be indulgent on that day. The sight was especially heart-warming given that Sir Syed Islamia is located in the highly volatile area of Malaratta. Over seven months, two dozen youth were arrested from this area when they protested on the streets.

Shahid and Abid, and the 13 lakh students enrolled up to Class 12 in the Valley, were happy to be finally seeing their friends in school. They were full of stories of how they had spent their time at home and how much of the syllabus they had managed to complete, says Abid. Some students shared gifts and hugged. “There was so much to talk about! Seeing each other in uniform after such a long gap... it felt unreal,” says Abid.

Exams during a shutdown

All the 11,308 schools (837 high schools, 410 higher secondary schools, 4,225 middle schools and 5,836 primary schools) in the Kashmir division were forced to close following the Centre’s decision on August 5, 2019, to end Jammu and Kashmir’s special status drawn from Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution. The decision, and the shutdown following it, took a big toll on the functioning of schools. Most of the schools in the Valley failed to conduct the annual assessment test due to curfew-like restrictions and absence of communication lines. Most schools opted to give students home assignments instead of holding annual examinations in classrooms.

Explained | How Kashmir's Special Status and Article 370 are being changed
 

Shahid and Abid were among the few who appeared for the year-end exam held in October-November last year. However, they were directed to come discreetly, wearing casual wear and slippers. “We would sneak into school early morning and sit for the exam. There was always a threat of violence breaking out on the streets,” Abid says. Both secured about 60% in the exam. “We could have done better. With the situation volatile, focusing on studies was very tough,” they say.

 

But Shahid, the son of a baker, and Abid, the son of a Waza (a cook who prepares dishes at weddings), are still worried. They could not attend any of the tuition classes held during the shutdown because of the deteriorating economic condition of their families in that period. “Shahid and I live just two km from each other. There was so much security presence from August 5 as well as sporadic protests that our parents didn’t allow us to meet. We played home cricket. If we tried to step out, we got shouted at by CRPF personnel. We could not attend any tuition,” Abid says. Shahid wants to become a teacher when he grows up and Abid dreams of becoming an engineer.

Syeda Sadaf Waiz, 14, is the daughter of a copper smith. She has been in Class 8 since November, the beginning of a new school year in Kashmir, but she has kept intact her textbooks from Class 7. The textbooks tell a tale of their own. The pages in the first half of her books have folded corners. The rest are flat and untouched — syllabus waiting to be completed. “We could complete only 50-60% of the syllabus last year. I scored just 75%, unlike my previous record of over 90%,” Syeda says.

In social science, Shahid and Abid have marked out six out of 13 chapters that are unread from their previous class. These include ‘Education and British Rule’ and ‘The National Movements: 1870s-1947’. Syeda says chapters titled ‘Forests: Our Lifeline’ and ‘Motion and Time’ were not covered. “I want to sit for the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test [NEET] and become a doctor one day. But if my basics are not cleared, how will I,” she asks.

Behavioural disorders

Getting the students back to school was no easy task, however. “They had a seven-month forced ‘staycation’. They spent that time without Internet and without any outing,” says Ghulam Nabi Var, who heads the Kashmir Private Schools’ Association (KPSA) and the Coaching Centres’ Association. Var’s association oversees the functioning of about 2,700 private schools.

 

Var says a student’s motivation to return to school comes down significantly when there is such a long gap. “There are several studies which suggest that they feel less motivated to study if they stay away from school for three months or more. We are yet to assess whether all the students have returned to school [which have been closed again over fears of an outbreak of the novel coronavirus], especially government schools,” Var says.

Students also exhibit many behavioural disorders when they are forced to stay out of school for so long, say experts. Razia Jan (name changed), a Class 7 student, has been regularly going to the outpatient department of the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS) in Srinagar since December. Jan is a hyperactive child. Her parents say that she was often irritated at home and prone to sudden flare-ups. She also shows reluctance in going back to school.

Back-to-school jitters in the Kashmir Valley

Experts warn that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other such conditions are likely to show school refusal behaviour. “Some children showed some symptoms of this. Parents had a tough time dealing with them,” says Syed Karrar Hussian, a child psychiatrist at IMHANS. “The discipline and regimented work hours at school regulate the behaviour of students, especially students with ADHD. A prolonged absence from school makes life chaotic for such children. A lot of them get used to not going to school, where they learn pro-social skills. We fear school refusal by such kids.”

Hussian sees around 20 cases on a daily basis. Most of the children are aged 6-12. Since August 5, the number of children with ADHD has swelled. There are 200 children being treated at the outpatient department. “No outdoor play, no Internet, and no entertainment has left children with no places to vent their feelings. Many children may require psycho-social care for healthy growth,” he says.

After schools re-opened, IMHANS monitored the behaviour of the children. “I hope four to five weeks of school reduces the anxiety of children, especially those with hyperactivity complaints. Both parents and teachers need to consult IMHANS in case students are fidgety or less attentive. Unfortunately, such students are given physical punishment. This only aggravates their problems,” says Hussain.

Bridging the knowledge gap

Muhammad Najar Jameel and Mir Suhail, both 16, sit under the spring sun in the beautiful campus of the Sri Pratap Higher Secondary School located on Maulana Azad Road. This is the Valley’s designated government-run model school with ‘smart classes’. Jameel and Suhail, dressed in grey sweaters and pants, have just registered for Class 11. Neither of them is interested in traditional professional courses. “I want to become a theoretical physicist. On any clear day, I gaze at stars for hours together,” says Jameel, who is a big fan of Stephen Hawking.

Established in 1874 by then Dogra ruler, Maharaja Pratap Singh, Sri Pratap School was closed for several days in 2017 and 2019 in the wake of violent protests. The school’s main building was taken over by additional battalions of the CRPF from August 2019. Both Jameel and Suhail are wary of discussing politics. “I want to discuss the new image of the black hole, not politics,” says Jameel. He then pauses for a long time. “No good is going to happen to us because of what the Centre did in J&K,” he finally says.

Reyaz Siddiqui, the principal of the smart school, is aware of the requirements of the times. “All the important topics that were missed, the fundamentals of various subjects, will be taught in remedial classes. We could only teach 65% of the syllabus last year,” he says.

The Director of the Education Department of Kashmir, Younis Malik, says they aim to have 220 working days for the middle school and at least 200 days for primary schools in the Valley this year. But when asked how to bridge the knowledge gap and help students acquire the fundamentals, Malik’s department does not have an answer.

Life without Internet

The lack of Internet during the shutdown was a serious concern for students and school administrations across the Valley. This was the reason why the syllabus could not be completed using apps and video lessons. During the winter vacations, the Sri Pratap School usually hosts ‘Project Kashmir Super 50’, an initiative rolled out by Naeem Akhtar, the former Education Minister and Peoples Democratic Party leader who is now in jail, along with J&K Peoples Movement chief, Shah Faesal, in 2013. Its aim is to prepare children from economically weaker sections for professional examinations. “We had tied up with the Avanti Gurukul app before August 5 to provide videos and study material for examinations like the NEET and the Joint Entrance Examination. However, no online classes could be held this winter. The study material could not be accessed because of the Internet shutdown. We distributed study material in pen drives later,” says the principal, Siddiqui.

Students in a classroom in Sir Syed Islamia.

Students in a classroom in Sir Syed Islamia.  

 

Sri Pratap School used to offer e-classes for each subject for students of Classes 11 and 12. It had earlier tied-up with e-learning platforms across the country. “It’s unlikely we can offer the same now. All this requires high-speed Internet. There is a need for a mechanism where Internet in schools is not disrupted on the pretext of the law and order situation,” Siddiqui says.

After the Supreme Court’s intervention in January, only 2G Internet and limited access to around 1,500 sites, identified as whitelisted sites, was given. The rest were blocked in Kashmir. This had the students on edge. They fear that this curfew may be imposed again any time.

 

“There is an Instagram account I used to follow which documents and shares all the major developments happening in the cosmos. I had accessed it before August 5. Besides this, NASA is the only major platform to track new scientific achievements. It remained inaccessible for seven months. Can I compete with others tomorrow when companies look for theoretical physicists,” asks Jameel.

According to KPSA data, most schools in the Valley depend on online teaching for new modules for teachers too. “In the absence of Internet, the teaching ecosystem too gets impacted,” says Var.

Now limited Internet has been restored in the Valley but the threat of COVID-19 has again forced the closure of all schools for the month of March. Parents worry that children will be forced to stay at home again. There is still not access to 4G. “If the government permits this, we can have video classes for the children,” one parent says.

Waiving the fee

Meanwhile, the parents and the government are putting pressure on private schools to waive the school and bus fee for the period of the shutdown (August to November). “Parents owe some 70% of the school fee. Out of some 3,000 drivers associated with private schools, 70% are managing with only 50% of the salary. Most parents are refusing to pay the bus fee,” says Var. The matter is now before the J&K High Court, where the petition filed by KPSA has questioned the order of the Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir, Baseer Khan, to the schools to offer a full waiver on the bus fee for the shutdown period. Meanwhile, the school administration and parents have decided to waive the bus fee for the months of August and September.

“There are people from various sectors, such as government employees and chemists, who were not impacted during the shutdown. Their income was not affected in any way. These people should clear all their dues. The government employees even get an allowance for their children. They should help poor students,” Var says.

Education sector under strain

Educational institutions in the Kashmir division saw only three-and-a-half-months of class work in 2019. “The schools opened in March last year. They closed for the summer vacations in July. Then August 5 happened. Students went to school for only 105 days, whereas the National Education Policy, 2019, calls for 220 working days in educational institutes,” Var says.

Students from Kashmir who went to school at the peak of militancy in the 1990s performed poorly in the national-level competitive examinations till 1998, Var says. “The fact that no aspirant qualified for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) from the Kashmir region in 2018-19 needs to be viewed with seriousness,” he says. Official figures suggest that on an average, six to nine aspirants from the Kashmir region qualified for the UPSC exams before 2016, the year when Kashmir was engulfed in long cycle of street protests which saw civilian deaths.

Kashmir’s education sector is today under tremendous strain. According to 2011 Census data, the Kashmir region, which has a population of 69.1 lakh, has just 2,700 private schools compared to Jammu which has a population of 53.5 lakh and 4,300 schools. According to official figures, there are 480 government-run schools without teachers, 3,122 schools (33%) without electricity. Also, 70% of the schools are without playgrounds.

Muhammad Najar Jameel (left) and Mir Suhail, Class 11 students of Sri Pratap Higher Secondary School, a government-run model school with ‘smart classes’.

Muhammad Najar Jameel (left) and Mir Suhail, Class 11 students of Sri Pratap Higher Secondary School, a government-run model school with ‘smart classes’.   | Photo Credit: Nissar Ahmad

 

Despite this dismal scenario, 65,393 students appeared for the Class 10 exam in 2019. The pass percentage was 75%. Officials say that the J&K State Board of School Education had to offer grace marks to ensure that the pass percentage was brought on par with the 2018 pass percentage of 75.44%. However, the pass percentage in the government schools of Ganderbal (50.37%), Bandipora (53.90%) and Baramulla (57%) districts was poor.

“Over the last three years, 125 private schools closed in Kashmir due to recurring agitations. The ripple effect of 2019 will be visible this year, with at least an equal number of schools likely facing closure and retrenchment of staff,” warns Var. Kashmir’s private schools offer jobs to 65,000 locals in the academic and non-academic sectors.

Even schools that were once managed by the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) face the threat of closure. With the Centre banning the socio-religious group in February last year, the fate of 385 schools run by the JEI came under question. Together these schools have enrolled one lakh students. “The government’s move put both students and teachers through a lot of stress. Most of them are from disadvantaged classes. One year since, hundreds of students and teachers have already switched to other schools,” says the headmaster of a JeI-run school. This has happened, he says, despite the government’s decision to not seal the property of these schools following protests.

With all these issues, and with the COVID-19 threat looming large, Shahid and Abid have their fingers crossed. “In our mohalla, older boys keep saying the situation will turn worse during summer this year. So far, it has been normal. We hope the spread of the virus is contained soon and classes are reopened for studies and interactions. We hope to continue studying whatever the circumstances and make it big in life despite the odds, both man-made and natural,” says Abid.

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 8:01:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/back-to-school-jitters-in-the-valley/article31062882.ece

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