A group of school students bend over notebooks as they sit on mats in a village square in Righer village to study numbers, spelling, and other subjects. In the open space, they can easily be seated at a distance to adhere to COVID-19 social distancing protocols.    The students have assembled for a two-hour session of community classes conducted outdoors by teachers and volunteers across dozens of villages in Nuh district in India’s northern Haryana state as schools remain shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic.    In another village, Kanwarsika, the morning bell announcing the start of a teaching session rings, not in the local school, but from a van equipped with a loudspeaker. Students settle down inside homes and in courtyards facing the street as, following a prayer, a teacher presents a chemistry lesson on a microphone.     “This helps us keep up with our studies,” said Sania Ahmed, a ninth-grade student, “and in our homes, we are safe from coronavirus also.”   From the classes held in open spaces to the mobile van that tours villages, the months-long shutdown of schools has inspired creative ways to teach thousands of students who cannot log on to online classes because they do not have access to smartphones and computers in villages across Muslim-dominated Nuh, a poor district in India.     Some students sit in courtyards facing the street as a chemistry lesson is beamed into village homes. (Anjana Pasricha/VOA)The switch to virtual teaching has highlighted the huge digital divide across India, where millions of poor households do not have computers or Wi-Fi, and the internet device that most students use to log on to classes is a smartphone.  In Nuh, even that is not available to many.    “A survey showed that only around 20% of students had access to smartphones,” according to Anup Singh Jakhar, education officer in Nuh. “So we began searching for ways to teach children in small groups in a way that would be safe and would not pose any threat of infection to them.”   Young students are being taught math at an outdoor class in Righer. (Anjana Pasricha/VOA)The answer was the “community schools” initiative, in which groups of about 15 students assemble in open spaces to be taught by scores of local volunteers and teachers dubbed “education ambassadors.”   The challenge however is huge in a district with over 100,000 school students – although the number of community classes has increased steadily in recent months, they only reach about 7,000 students.   “The children used to roam around here and there without focus, but now they study properly. We are trying to cover their syllabus.” Jamshed Khan, a primary school teacher in Righer, said.   While many families have scraped together money for cheap or second-hand smart phones for children, their efforts still could not help all students, Khan said.   “Digital education simply could not work here because most of the families are big. Sometimes they share one phone between 10 members,” Khan says.   That was the experience of 12-year-old Saista, an eighth grader.“We are three brothers and sisters and only my elder brother gets the phone to study, so I could not log on to the classes,” she said.  It was not easy to get volunteers to conduct the classes in an area where even schools are short of teachers due to low literacy levels — men mostly work as drivers or construction labor, and most women in Nuh have limited education.   Those who have stepped forward range from teachers to postgraduates.“I lost my job in a private school because it shut during the pandemic, so I decided to teach these students. They are helping me and helping them cover the syllabus,” according to one volunteer, Khushi Mohammad.  Postgraduate Afroz Khan, who is studying to be a schoolteacher, said coaching students has given her the confidence that she can make a successful career in teaching.At outdoor classes held at Righer village in Haryana’s Nuh district, students sit a distance in keeping with Covid 19 protocols. (Anjana Pasricha/VOA)“The children are responding very well. If I ask them to learn the lesson that we teach, I find that they have done it the next day and that really makes me very proud,” she said.  For many ambitious students, these classes are crucial – Faizan Khan’s eighth grade scores will determine whether he can take science courses. “I want to become a doctor,” he said, “Now when I take tests when schools reopen, I will be able to do them well.”  However, he said he misses the conventional school day, where he met friends.“The school was lively. Here we go home after two hours but in school, we had a full day. We returned home by about 3 o’clock and then went to the masjid,” he said, referring to a mosque.   Many others are also nostalgic about the prepandemic school schedule – 15-year-old Sania Ahmed even wears her school uniform when she sits down at home for classes being beamed in Kanwarsika village from a loudspeaker.  There is no certainty yet when Khan and Ahmed can get back to school. As India continues to grapple with the pandemic, most schools remain closed although high school students can meet teachers for some coaching in school. Meanwhile the community initiative is going some way to ensure that the pandemic will not cost them a year of learning.   

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