On March 25, 2020, a stringent lockdown was enforced in India to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Only essential services remained active, and for many, work from home became the norm. Even classrooms went online as educational institutions remained shut.
But it was a different story for children in rural areas; it wasn’t simply a matter of schools being closed. The pandemic posed unanticipated challenges, given that there was limited access to the right information and low awareness levels on how to stay safe. Coupled with the fact that earning a livelihood is priority, the disconnect from school magnifies the chances of children in remote areas getting pulled into labour, while for girls, it often means getting married at a young age.
All these factors spurred the Tata Trusts to work on reimagining learning spaces in order to engage with students from rural areas so that they didn’t fall through the gaps due to a break in education. The priority was to work with socially and economically underprivileged communities in remote and hilly areas in Rajasthan and Gujarat.
Creating new learning spaces
In Rajasthan, the Trusts’ associate organisation — Centre for microFinance (CmF) — which runs education-related interventions in Sirohi, Pali and Karauli districts, took up the onus. It is currently working with over 5,500 children (from pre-primary to class 8) through village-level learning camps or library sessions across all its project locations in Rajasthan. With gradual relaxations on lockdown, the CmF teams first engaged with the community and children through village or fali-level interactions. These sessions focused on raising awareness about COVID-19 to abate the villagers’ fears and demonstrations to ensure safety practices to restrict the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The next step was to explore possible avenues through which children could continue their contact with books and learning materials. The CmF team members identified spaces within the villages where they could work with children in small groups, while following safety etiquettes. They initially faced roadblocks while trying to convince the villagers to send their children out of the houses. However, with regular interaction and sensitisation, the community began trusting the CmF team members. They helped the team identify appropriate spaces, ensured that their children regularly attend classes and some villagers even volunteered their homes as community libraries.
The village-based learning centres took off in July 2020 leveraging technology, books and innovative activities and learning aids to provide the children with literacy, numeracy and remedial learning inputs. Each centre engages with a small group of 15 children (mostly between classes 3-8) while following social distancing and other safety measures.
In Gujarat, similar interventions were carried out in Devbhumi Dwarka district by the Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell (CSPC) and Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (CInI) in the tribal Panch Mahal and Sabarkantha districts. Both CSPC and CInI are associate organisations of the Tata Trusts.
After the sudden closure of schools due to the lockdown, the teams carried out an assessment exercise in all three clusters to understand the pandemic’s effects, the parents’ awareness levels, availability of mobile devices, etc. This helped the teams understand the limitations and accordingly identify possible modes of reaching out to the children.
Based on the evaluation exercise, the team adopted a multi-pronged approach to tackle the situation. Firstly, to engage with the community, specifically the parents, and guide them on how to support their children’s education by giving them access to their smartphones, taking time out to sit with their children while they read textbooks, etc.
Secondly, to identify volunteers (village youth) who could take sessions once or twice a week with the students. Over a period of four months, over 75 volunteers were identified across Devbhumi Dwarka and tribal districts of Panch Mahal and Sabarkantha. The volunteers are regularly guided by the field team facilitators and have been able to play a crucial role in supporting the children in their educational needs.
Development of learning materials has been another important aspect of the teams’ work. High quality content is curated based on the sessions that are relayed through the Girnar channel. The team also prepared worksheets, which are shared with the students regularly.
At a time when there was a vacuum due to schools being closed and the lack of a mentor to guide the students in their studies, the sessions with the volunteers have been well received. What has made learning even more enjoyable has been the opportunity to play together, read story books, attend classroom sessions, work with art materials and also access digital content through a portable projector.
The learning experience that these children have might have changed due to the pandemic, but one thing is for sure — with initiatives such as these, their education won’t take a back seat to earning a livelihood or early marriage. The avenues created through reimagined learning spaces and interactions with volunteers have ensured that the connect between children and education continues in some form.