'A decade of work lost in 4 months’

A teacher prepares for online classes through the Teach For Nepal program. Photos: TEACH FOR NEPAL

Nepal’s schools have been closed now for nearly five months, and while some have shifted to online classes, Zoom and YouTube are not the answer for schools in the districts. Teachers fear many students will have dropped out when schools physically reopen.

Ichksha Pandey, 15, is a student in Nauthar village of Lamjung and dreams of becoming a nurse to improve healthcare standards in her village. Shreya Thapa, a fellow with the Teach for Nepal project says she is one of the sharpest students in class, a keen and curious learner. 

For the past three months, Pandey has been attending television classes broadcast by the government. But it is difficult when her father scolds her for spending too much time on schoolwork at home, she says.

“I have to do all the household work because there is no one else in the house to take care of it,” she says. “My parents didn’t go to school so it’s hard to make them believe my education should get the most priority.”

Pandey is determined to continue her studies, but has seen classmates and juniors lose interest in school during these months because some do not have access to television and radio. Those who do are quickly discouraged without teachers physically present to hammer home the importance of education and walk them through difficult problems, she says.

“Relying on technology won’t work for us,” said Moin Uddin, an alumnus of Teach For Nepal, an organisation that tries to address the inequities in education in the country. “COVID-19 has to end, school has to start. That is the only way out.”

School closures brought about by the coronavirus have affected more than 1 billion students worldwide. According to UNDP estimates, 86% of primary children in the poorest countries are effectively out of school now because they lack tools for web-based learning, compared with 20% in the richer ones. 

In developing countries like Nepal, school closures have wiped out recent gains in education, writes Maida Pasic, an education specialist at UNICEF. There is also growing evidence of learners being pulled back into child labour, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

At Terse Higher Secondary School in Talamarang of Sindhupalchok district nearly all families of the students enrolled are subsistence farmers. Children often drop out because they cannot afford school, a situation that has worsened during the pandemic as family members working in Kathmandu and India have lost their jobs, and had just started recovering from the 2015 earthquake.

Typically, 15 out of the school’s 600 students drop out every year. This year, they estimate many more children will not be re-joining classes when schools reopen, and the next two monsoon months are crucial.

The Talamarang School has started a new mobile classroom initiative, in which teachers ride up to villages, gather students outdoors, and conduct lessons.

Teacher Bhim Tamang says each one-way trip can take up to two hours due to poor roads. But it is the only way to get to his students, many of whom have been out of touch. “We tell them why education is important, why they should study,” he said. “Or they will forget about school and may have to get married.” 

Studies have shown children are less susceptible to the coronavirus, and interventions aimed at them might have a relatively small impact on reducing transmissions. Yet, the learning gap between rich and poor will likely grow during the pandemic, and closing schools for five months causes children in low and middle-income countries to lose more than a full year’s worth of learning, another Brookings report found.

“Reopening schools - when it is safe to do so - must be a priority otherwise we will see a devastating impact on children who are falling behind,” Pasic of UNICEF wrote.

With so many young futures at stake, Nepal’s teachers have rallied to keep their students engaged and learning, even from a distance. Teach For Nepal fellow Anup Buyo creates and uploads science videos on YouTube, then pays for his students’ mobile data so they can gather classmates in the same village to watch them together. Afterwards, they video call him with their questions.

Still, he worries. “Their foundations are very poor and they will certainly forget everything we taught before this lockdown. It’s a decade of work lost in months,” he said.

Teachers are hoping the Nepal government can provide them with more support as they try to get students back on track. “Support in terms of workbook copies, internet facilities and expenses for visiting villages and communities,” said Anish Manandhar, another Teach For Nepal volunteer teacher.

Other volunteers like Samrita Maharjan say that as teachers they try to do their jobs during the lockdown school closure, but it is stressful. During a typical Zoom lesson, only four or five of Maharjan’s class of 60 students from Saraswoti Model Secondary School in Tanahu turn up. Most have no internet access, others cannot operate Zoom.

“It’s not even their fault. Never in their lives have they heard of online classes. Using Zoom is new and scary for them,” she says.

The government has acted slowly, schools closed without viable alternatives for remote learning, and more students are dropping out as their teachers struggle to reach them.

“I wouldn’t blame the students because we can’t even cater to their learning in the right way,” Maharjan says, “if the virus is spreading at that speed, our execution must be double the speed right?”