Class divide: Night and morning school students disproportionately disconnectedOnline classes have robbed night and morning school students of the quality education they desperately want.
Sabina Giri, 34, walks through the gates of her school after five months. She is greeted by the lively groundskeeper Gyan dai who lives in an attached two-storied apartment building in the school compound itself. The school’s friendly pet dog wags its tail as Giri passes by.
Giri is a grade 12 student of Shree Nandi Ratri Secondary School, in Naxal, Kathmandu, a co-education school that offers night classes from 5 pm to 9 pm—to students from all walks of life.
It’s 5 pm but there isn’t life on the school grounds—no animated chatter of students or hurried shuffles of feet into classrooms. One by one, she is joined by her friends. Forced to participate in online classes for the majority of their grade 12 courses, the small group of students have now come to get their admit cards for their upcoming final exams. Their faces betray their anxiousness and a sense of unpreparedness for the upcoming exams.
During the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, classes were disrupted, suspended, and then forced to transition online. Students of late night and early morning schools found it extremely difficult to access quality education in such circumstances. Such students, who mostly have considerable age and a gap in their education, show immense zeal and self-motivation to continue with their education. But the lockdown and forced online classes have robbed these students of quality education which they desperately want.
“I rejoined grade 11 after a 15-year gap after completing my SLC. My son encouraged me to continue my studies, and I wanted more job opportunities for myself, too. Actually, I had registered for grade 11 after completing my SLC 15 years ago, but then I got married and that was that,” says Giri.
Giri works in the marketing department of a financial institution. She reminisces about how she aspired to move up the corporate ladder from the marketing department into the accounting department. Even her manager would praise her abilities and skills, but she got held back due to her insufficient academic qualifications. She says, “Just an SLC certificate is not good enough these days. A grade 12 certificate is the bare minimum.”
Rajesh Humagain, the principal of Shree Nandi Ratri Secondary School, says, “Our student body is extremely diverse. Our students' ages range from 11 years to even 60 years. The majority of them are in their 30s and 40s and earn their livelihoods as daily wage workers, private office workers, domestic helps, low-level government employees and the like. Their professional commitments mean they cannot fit the regular timing of schools into their daily schedule. They finish their work and day duties and come in the night for their classes.”
Before the pandemic, Giri says she would come straight from her work to her night class. A supportive family and favourable family conditions allowed her to attend physical classes regularly. Back then, out of total 23 students in her class, only 15 would attend regularly.
Those attending night classes regularly did so despite the many challenges they faced. The late timings and long distance between some students' homes and the school meant that many students were facing daily challenges commuting to school.
“One female student in our class lived in Kalimati, so when classes ended between 8:30 and 9 pm, she would have a hard time returning home. Someday, one person would drop her home on a bike while other days, someone else. If people with bikes didn’t come to class, then she would have to leave class early to catch public vehicles to get home,” says Giri.
The barriers to education rose even higher during the pandemic. Online classes were the only recourse amid a pandemic, but they created a deep digital divide.
From an average attendance of 15 students out of total 23 students in Giri’s class, the attendance of online classes dropped sharply to barely four to five students. Teachers and students at Shree Nandi Ratri Madhyamik Vidyalaya the Post talked to say that the number one reason is the lack of access to digital devices and the internet.
Prerana Mahila Madhyamik Vidyalaya, in Satdobato, that offers classes from grade 1 to 10 to only female students also suffers from parallel woes. Prabha Chalise, principal of the school, informs that out of around 150 total students, only 30-35 students attend their online classes.
The school conducts classes in two shifts, from 6 to 11 am, and 11 am to 4 pm. The early morning shift is aimed to include working females who can attend classes and then go to their work while the morning to afternoon shift is aimed to include homemaker females.
However, because of the lockdown, even with utmost zeal and determination, many students of schools like Shree Nandi Ratri and Prerana Mahila have been unable to continue their education. While the lack of digital access is a significant reason, another reason is also forced migration.
Sambhu Prasad Aryal, Economics and English teacher of grade 8 to 10 at Prerana Mahila Madhyamik Vidyalaya, says that students who were fortunate enough to stay in Kathmandu over the lockdown have been able to attend online classes. Still, other students who were forced to return to their villages have not been so fortunate. He informs, “Around 35 percent of our student body consists of daily wage workers. Most of them have lost their jobs and have been forced to migrate back to their villages with no proper internet connectivity. I think that mainly students who went back to rural areas have not been able to continue with their online classes.”
A grade 12 student, Bhakta GC, 38, a classmate of Sabina Giri, says that he relocated back to his hometown in Birendranagar, Surkhet, after the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns. He had joined grade 11 in 2019 after completing his SLC in 2007 only because the evening classes of Shree Nandi Ratri fit his schedule. He works as a driver in an NGO, and he says that he wants more education to ensure his job security. “In the past, employers used to be satisfied with a grade 8 certificate, but with time, they started asking for an SLC certificate. Now I am afraid that they will soon ask for a +2 certificate, and I might be jobless if it comes to that,” he says.
While working in Kathmandu, GC was having trouble saving money due to the high living costs. A fortunate series of circumstances meant that the company in which he worked in Kathmandu was also looking to relocate its services to Surkhet at the end of October 2020. So, he jumped at the opportunity and moved back to Birendranagar, Surkhet. He says, “Online classes are okay. I am fortunate enough to have internet access and digital devices to join online classes, but I haven’t been regularly attending classes due to work commitments. I am returning to Kathmandu to get the admit card and finish my exams. After that, I will return to Surkhet. I see very less chances of returning to Kathmandu again.”
Therein lies the difficulty for students fortunate enough to have access to smartphones and the internet. A physical classroom provided an environment conducive to quality education, barring all distractions, for students who have professional and domestic obligations. Online classes and the home environment just aren’t favourable for studies, say students and teachers.
“Sometimes, you have a lot of work at home, so you miss classes. It’s not like going to a physical class where there is no distraction,” says Giri.
Her words are echoed by Sarita Humagain, Nepali and Law teacher at Shree Nandi Ratri Madhyamik Vidyalaya. “Most female students at our school are married women who live together with their joint family. Many students have complained to me personally that they get frequently distracted by household works and chores. The night timing of the classes also clashes with the dinner preparation and chores. Since they are forced to stay home, they are also forced to skip their classes to prepare meals,” she says.
She shares that the home environment is not favourable to quality education for her students with poor economic backgrounds too. “Some students live in one-room accommodations where they are constantly disturbed by their neighbours. On the other hand, some students who live with an extended family feel embarrassed to attend classes before their family members. Most of our students are between 30 to 40 years old, and so they don’t feel comfortable learning basic lessons in front of their family,” she says.
As a teacher who taught day classes for 18 years, Humagain transitioned to the night classes to continue her own education journey. She says, “Students in day classes are young, so they are a bit nonchalant about their education. However, students in night classes are older and they are very self-determined about their education.” She says that even young students in night classes “value their time extremely and absorb as much information as they can” during the classes.
“It breaks my heart to see such determined students not being able to get the kind of quality education they seek because of the challenges posed by the pandemic,” says Humagain.
Online classes have posed problems for not only students but also teachers. Teachers also have been unable to conduct online classes consistently. “Some teachers have returned to their villages, and sometimes they do not have access to the internet there. While some times, the teachers themselves have also fallen sick and been unable to continue their lessons,” she says. “Even though we conducted online classes for more than a year now, I am not satisfied with the quality of education that I was able to provide through online education. Sometimes there would be technical difficulties, and sometimes students would miss classes. I feel that I could have taught so much better in physical classes.”
Even when the online classes run smoothly, students miss out on quality education for some subjects. Chalise says, “Technical subjects like maths and science require more two-way communication between students so that the students properly understand the theories and formulas. Teachers cannot check the work of all the students in an online class, unlike in a physical class.”
Aryal says that both students and teachers use simple digital tools which may not be very effective. “We use Zoom calls and messaging apps to conduct classes,” he says. He regretfully shares, “Even with all the different methods we use and the combined determination of both students and teachers, I have to admit that online teaching is barely half as effective as teaching in person.”
Giri says that all the obstacles to online classes have caused very few subjects’ courses to be completed while the exams are already here. Her grade 12 finals are happening physically. “Last year, we had online exams for our grade 11 finals,” says Giri. “I passed with flying colours in every subject. But I feel like I gained very little knowledge through the whole thing. I don’t feel confident writing exams again.”