First Bell | When students lose out on school time as virtual classes take hold

(This is the second of a four-part series on the myriad issues involving the First Bell classes in Kerala.)

All adults cherish their schooldays even though as students some would have hated studies or the institutional rules. In childhood, it is at schools one spends most of their daytime. Apart from learning, a significant outcome of schooling is personality development. However, this academic year when the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the shutdown of schools, classes began to be delivered online and students stay put at their homes before a PC, TV or smartphone. 

The biggest disadvantage of learning in the virtual world is that children lose their school time. Moreover, teachers won't be able to understand the issues faced by their wards at the academic or personal level. Teachers' ability to know and deal with problems such as domestic violence, sexual exploitation, and learning stress is now limited compared to earlier when there were physical classes.

A Plus-Two student recently committed suicide near Malappuram Fort. She had got good marks in Plus One. She did not find online studies effective and was worried about not getting good marks in the exams. This is not an isolated incident.  

Online learning may not be a big challenge for children who can understand things quickly. It may not be a big deal even in homes where parents can provide academic and psychological support to students. However, there are children who actively learn only when there are constant encouragement and direct intervention of teachers. Online classes cause anxiety and stress among them.

The e-learning exercise reminds us that even though there is a good effort at the government level to reduce mental stress, the society, in general, should take greater care of its children. 

"Staying away from the school environment for long periods of time can affect their mental development. My son is in the seventh class‌. At first, he was very happy as the schools were shut. But, now, he wants the school to reopen. If this is the case with a seventh-grader, then one can guess what would be the feeling of older children," remarked Dhanya Abid, State General Secretary of the Organization for Social Workers and Counsellors.  

P Jisha, a School Counsellor in Kozhikode, too shared students are getting sick of the online class.  

"A class teacher had called me to say that a student was finding the online class very difficult and that she was very tense. Her father and mother are not on good terms and the child was using the mother's phone. Pornographic messages were landing on this phone. Now, as per her wish, she has been asked to attend the class using her father's phone. The parents were also taken to the family counselling centre."

The stress factors

The stress over learning affects children in many ways. For those who find it difficult to learn in a physical class, inability to keep up with the speed of online class can lead to a loss of confidence. 

Renu Krishna, school counsellor, Alappuzha, cited an instance in this context. "The incident took place in a school in Alappuzha district. A mother called saying her daughter, a student of class 10, was finding it difficult to study well. The child had good marks in class 9, but she was tense because she was finding it difficult to follow online classes and was worried about how she would score good marks in class 10. The child, who may have fallen into depression, was helped with lengthy counselling sessions.

P. Faiza, a school counsellor from Malappuram, too came across a student in distress. "I intervened in the case of a student who attempted suicide by cutting her nerve due to difficulty in learning. The problem was she was often compared with other children and faced constant pressure to learn. She was also reprimanded saying that she was not doing all the chores assigned to her at home properly. At school, at least her friends and classmates understood her situation. It took a long time to make the family understand the seriousness of the matter," Faiza narrated. 

Home ambience crucial

During the COVID pandemic, children are confined within the four walls of the house. What if the atmosphere in the house is not conducive for their studies and development? They can go astray in life when they are distressed, not just in studies and at the same time find it difficult to make friends and share matters with them.

Lini Biju, a school counsellor at Thrissur, narrated the predicament of two students whose father is an alcoholic. 

"There are two sisters studying in a school. One is in class 9 and the other in class 4. The drunkard father beats their mother and the children too. When they are sent out of the house, the trio seeks refuge in a nearby house. There was no facility for online study. The elder child called me unable to tolerate the father’s treatment. We informed the DySP immediately. Had the police not intervened, the children would have been in danger," Lini said. 

Dangerous devices

The restrictions on the use of mobile phones by children at home have been removed in the name of online learning, but now they are exposed to the dangers lurking online. 

This is the experience shared by a school counsellor from Palakkad who did not want to be named. "A class 10 student was mentally challenged. Although the family was informed about the student’s condition earlier, they were reluctant to accept the fact. The family claimed that the teachers were deliberately abusing him. He would log in for online classes regularly every day. But he would not actively participate. Then when we called his home, his sister picked up the phone. She said that he would leave the house in the morning and would return late. The sister said she did not know where he was going. We told her that they should find out where he was going.

Later, when relatives followed him, they found something shocking. The boy had been sexually abused by an elderly woman in a nearby area for several months.  The boy told police that she had lured him by sending pornographic videos and pictures to the phone he was using for online learning."

How to bring back joy 

Police have received 8,451 phone calls since July under the "Chiri" (smile) programme which was launched in July to address the mental health problems of children overwhelmed by the digital classrooms at homes. 

By assessing the issues raised by children and parents, the police provided support by phone and if needed in person in all the 14 districts in the state. 

The complaints received by the police include those on children's mental health problems, game addiction, drug use, depression, suicidal tendencies, loneliness, fear, quarrels between parents etc. 

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The programme is on in all the 14 districts of Kerala with the aid of 25 psychiatrists, 43 psychologists, 81 mentors, including teachers, and 285 peer mentors who are senior cadets in the student police. 

IGP Vijayan, who heads the child-friendly police project, said domestic conflict resolution centres have also been set up under the women’s cell in districts to address family issues. 

‘Chiri’ Helpline: 94 97 90 02 00; it functions 24 hours a day. 

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