How a poor fishing hamlet in Kerala is finding it hard to cope with virtual classes

How a poor fishing hamlet in Kerala is finding it hard to cope with virtual classes
Girls playing kitchen games during class hours on Monday

The two-storeyed Poonthura Students' Union Library was the only common area where a television has been installed for students without online, smartphone or television access in the largely poor Poonthura fishing hamlet in Thiruvananthapuram. But at 9:30 am on Monday (June 15), the library was found locked.

The library is easy to spot. It is near the Poonthura St Thomas Church and is a concrete structure with olive green borders that stands tall and neat among a line of strained-looking tiled houses and shops. The library is on the roadside and behind it is a long assembly line of small concrete fishermen houses that stretches up to the Poonthura beach.

Along the narrow concrete walkway that leads to the houses at the back, children of school-going age, kids expected to be in front of a TV showing Victers Channel classes, were seen screaming, shouting, playing as though the day had thrown up a surprise holiday.

We called up the secretary of the library, Jinu, to know why it was locked. “No parent had called us for the morning sessions. But there is one eighth standard boy who wants to attend the 3:30 pm to 4:30 session. So we will open the library by noon for him,” Jinu said.

When the Library Council asked Jinu to quickly create facilities for virtual classes, a TV was the big worry. “We had one but it was switched on very rarely, only for sporting events like IPL matches,” Jinu said. As expected, it conked out during the trial itself. V S Sivakumar, the MLA of the area, then contributed a new LED TV.

Questioning parents

How a poor fishing hamlet in Kerala is finding it hard to cope with virtual classes
A lone VIIIth standard student attending Victers Channel classes at the Poonthura Students' Union Library on Monday

Now that they had a new TV, Jinu and friends decided to visit houses where children had no online or television access. But the first responses were enough to dissuade them.

“Parents were generally cold to the idea. They said this was no different from a classroom. They wanted to know how we could ensure social distancing in the library,” Jinu said.

So, they adopted a more detached approach. “We posted information about the virtual class facility in local WhatsApp groups and said that those interested can contact us,” Jinu said. There was virtually no response.

Sylvastar J, the principal of the St Thomas Higher Secondary School in Poonthura, said he had asked 11 Class 12 students coming from homes with no access to get in touch with Jinu. None of them have.

The school itself had informed poor parents that TV access could be granted in the school itself. The parents of one Class 10 girl student had expressed interest.

The school had a television installed in a small room and the headmaster was waiting when Onmanorama visited the school on Monday. The 'First Bell' classes for Class 10 began at 11 am and the girl did not turn up even by 12 noon.

Why Poonthura houses are unfit for study

How a poor fishing hamlet in Kerala is finding it hard to cope with virtual classes
J Sylvastar, the principal of St Thomas School, Poonthura

Poonthura is a densely populated area with around 1,800-2,000 houses packed so cheek-jammingly close that a song playing in moderate volume on a television in one house can be heard with almost the same clarity by a housewife cutting fish 10 houses away.

It is estimated by both the Church and the local authorities that these houses have nearly 4,000 school-going children. Most of them attend government and aided schools in Poonthura and nearby areas but there are also kids who go to big reputed schools in the city.

Even if houses in Poonthura have TV or smartphones, they are not conducive for education. “More than one family stays in one house, and because of this one house can have five to six children. And on top of this these families also have the habit of stuffing things like cycles and fishing nets inside these already cramped houses, leaving no space for a common area where the family can sit together and watch TV,” said Fr Ratheesh V Rajan, the assistant parish priest of St Thomas Church.

“If at all a house has a smart phone, how are the elders going to divide it between five or six children,” the priest wondered. According to him, at least 40 per cent of these houses have no TV or smartphones.

Scramble for palm tops

How a poor fishing hamlet in Kerala is finding it hard to cope with virtual classes
A banner feting V S Sivakumar for donating an LED TV to the Poonthura library, seen right opposite

Yet, parents are unwilling to send their children to the library. It is not just the fear of 'social closeness'. Cultural factors are also at play.

“Even if they send their sons, no one would want to send their girls to a common facility that is not a school and does not have teachers,” said Sherly J, former Poonthura councillor.

She has three kids who study in a Kendriya Vidyalaya, far away from the fishing village. Since it is the CBSE syllabus that her children follow, it is not a television but a smartphone that she wants.

Sherly has managed to get hold of two smartphones. “Since I have three children and their class timings overlap, they will have to decide among themselves and take turns to miss classes,” she said.

Smartphones are suddenly in demand in the village. Parents of children doing State syllabus are also after these palm tops as missed Victers Channel classes could be downloaded from YouTube.

“Most of the families in this village do not have the money to get a smart phone. Sad thing is mobile phone shops even in our area do not offer the EMI facility for fisherfolk,” Sherly said.

Teaching disabilities

How a poor fishing hamlet in Kerala is finding it hard to cope with virtual classes
Three Kendriya Vidyalaya students in Sherly's house sharing two mobiles

Children supposedly lucky, those with television in their homes, have already realised that listening to teachers on TV was more complex than they had thought. “They take English classes in English and Hindi classes in Hindi. I don't understand a word of what they say,” said a fifth standard boy in a Virat Kohli T-shirt we met in one of the houses near the beach.

His mother said he had stopped attending the classes. “Normally I have to scold him to get him away from the TV but today, even after I gave him a sound spanking, he had refused to sit before the TV,” she said.

Difficulty in keeping up with the 'television teachers' was a general complaint heard in the village. “Many of the eighth standard students tell us they are finding it difficult to follow Maths and Physics,” Beatrice, who sells fish in the city, speaks for all mothers in the neighbourhood.

“In school, a teacher keeps repeating till she is convinced at least 90 per cent of the class has understood the lesson. Television teachers just go on not knowing whether the kids listening to them had understood anything. The school has only begun and many of the kids here have started to worry about the coming exams,” Beatrice said.

Alternative schooling

These largely illiterate fisherwomen have now found a solution to the woes of their kids, a costly one: Tuition. “Our kids should not be left behind. So we send them for tuitions,” Beatrice said.

These informal classes are taken by graduate and post graduate youths in the village. “These tuition teachers take a nominal fee of Rs 500 a month or less but even this is highly prohibitive for a fisher family that would consider itself lucky if it gets work for at least two days a week,” said Fr Ratheesh.

It looks like virtual classes have forced the coastal community to look for costlier but conventional means of education. And by forcing them to spend on costly gadgets and tuitions, virtual classes have left the fisherfolk poorer.

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