Nepal’s class divide widens
Third grader Sona Lama lives in the uplands of Rasuwa and has not been to school for more than a year. But since Nepal Telecom built a cellphone tower on a nearby peak, there is now 3G connection — enough for her to attend class on her mobile phone.
Her teachers have partnered with a school in Kathmandu that offers volunteers to guide students like Sona to use Google Classroom or Zoom, and also offer tuition so they can catch up with school work.
“This is no substitution for going to an actual school and meeting friends and teachers face-to-face, of course, but at least the online classes partly make up for the disruption, and has introduced the students to new technology,” says Samata Regmi, a Grade 12 student herself, who is a volunteer mentor for Sona and others like her.
Regmi lists many challenges: the network often goes off in the middle of class, video uses too much bandwidth, the children are frequently distracted by household chores.
“Many of the parents are out of work, so the children have to help at home, and it is difficult to get them to concentrate. They have very short attention spans on screen,” adds Regmi, who despite the challenges, is glad to be helping children in remote areas with remote learning.
Sona Lama shares her mobile with three other older siblings, and since the tower brought data internet it is now in high demand for browsing TikTok videos and Facebook as well. She is still luckier than most Nepali children — a recent survey showed that 80% of students have neither been to school since March 2020, nor do they have access to classes online or by radio/tv.
There was a class divide among Nepal’s 6 million school students even before Covid-19. But there is now also a digital divide that has widened the gap between private and government schools. While most urban private schools have been conducting classes quite smoothly, government schools have had less success because their students are from poorer families.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-z9K0iuDdo
Still, distance learning is catching up and where young students are logging on for online classes, the process has made them more tech-savvy and more confident with digital technology.
In Mangal Prasad School in Nepalganj has been encouraging its children to get online so they can catch up with missed school. Says teacher Sandhya Sharma: “Those who are attending digital classrooms are doing well, we are happy with their progress. But I am sorry to say that there are many who have just not been logging on.”
The Annapurna School in Bharatpur trained its teachers using online tools like Google Classroom and Zoom, but only half the students are attending online classes. The school did a survey and found out why: of its 700 students, less than 20% had wifi and only 10% could access mobile data.
Even after Yasodhara School in Lalitpur offered to pay data fees for mobiles of students to take online classes, only half the children did. The parent body of the school is mainly made up of daily wage earners.
After last year’s lockdown, a Unicef survey showed that 95% of families surveyed said their children had stopped going to school. A third of the respondents said their children had access to distance learning, but only half were using it.
‘The continued loss of access to education in low-income families might have an irreversible negative impact on the country’s economy,’ Unicef said then. However, students did attend schools for about two months between the two Covid waves earlier this year, and the uptake of online glasses has gone up.
As the second wave crests, the government has eased the lockdown. Public transport, shops, airlines are back in operation and only restaurants, bars, cinemas and schools are still closed. But in Kathmandu Valley many schools are preparing to reopen even as the infection rate continues to remain high, with a quarter of those being tested being positive for Covid-19.
Public health experts are also warning of a second peak in the second wave because the lockdown is being relaxed too quickly. Crowding in buses and markets without adequate precaution, they say, could mean that the Delta variant could spread rapidly again among the unvaccinated.
This week, the total confirmed Covid-19 cases in Nepal crossed 650,000, and the daily active cases started rising again after the lockdown was lifted to total 26,500. The daily fatality total also rose again to 28 after dipping below 20 for the first time in the second wave.
There is also a warning out that the new variant is mostly infecting people in the 21-40 age group, which means schools may have to rethink re-opening. However, other experts say a blanket nationwide ban on schools reopening does not make sense, especially in areas where new infections are negligible, and enough precautions are taken.