Schools across India are struggling to teach online as the pandemic is forcing them to remain closed. But this city of Kashmir under Indian administration has found a new solution, reports Abid Bhatt.
Each morning, students from Doodpathri, a town in Budgam district, pass streams and bridges, and climb the hill to their new classroom: a picturesque location with the snow-capped Himalayan peaks as a backdrop. background.
Outdoor school is a respite for parents and children after months of blockade to slow Covid-19 infections. The state has reported more than 19,000 cases and some 365 deaths.
“It is much better for our children to attend such schools than to grow weary of homes where they often end up frustrated,” says Mushtaq Ahmad, whose son attends outdoor school.
Officials should work with residents to create more such schools, he adds.
Despite Kashmir’s troubled relationship with India – and the specter of violence that haunts the valley – it has long been a popular tourist destination for its idyllic beauty.
And Doodpathri itself is a well-known hill station. But with no tourists arriving this summer, locals have asked officials to make a different use of the region’s stunning locations.
“Classes are conducted with safety measures in mind,” said Mohammad Ramzan Wani, zonal education manager, who helped set up the community school.
“Due to unpredictable weather conditions in the upper stretches, we also tried to pitch tents for a seamless execution of these classes.
Indian students, especially those in rural areas and poorly funded public schools, have struggled to take online classes due to spotty connectivity and a lack of phones in a single household.
Even in private schools, the shift to online classes has exposed a digital divide between students who have multiple devices – from laptops to iPads to smartphones – at home and those who don’t.
So in rural Kashmir, the option of open-air classrooms was a welcome respite.
“Most of these children belong to the Gujjar-Bakarwal community of Kashmir,” said a teacher who had volunteered for this community school. The Gujjar-Bakarwals are a nomadic tribe.
“Their enthusiastic participation smacked the whole concept and created a similar demand elsewhere,” adds the teacher.
This decision was particularly helpful since the children here were not in school even before the start of the pandemic.
In August 2019, the Indian federal government revoked the region’s special status, which gave it more autonomy than most other states, creating a new rift between Delhi and Srinagar. This decision was accompanied by an unprecedented lockdown and suspension of telephone and Internet services. If these have been restored to some extent, broadband or 4G internet is still prohibited.
Life in the predominantly Muslim valley has not been normal for a year.
Officials say outdoor schools follow all protocols related to Covid-19, such as wearing masks and social distancing.
Teachers say authorities regularly show up for inspections and make sure everything needed for lessons is available.
The only downside is that they have no way of sheltering from the rain.
When the clouds burst above their heads, the children run for cover, the sounds of the summer shower being interrupted only by their laughter and cries.
All of Abid Bhatt’s photographs.