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Under normal circumstances, schools would be starting the new academic session right about now; friends would be seeing each other after weeks, excited to share stories of what they did over the break. But these are not normal circumstances. While some of Kathmandu’s private schools are preparing to start online classes, most of us are worried about when schools will actually open.

In Nepal, the SEE exams as well as grade 11 and 12 exams have been postponed indefinitely. But we were lucky that our school year was ending just as the Covid19 scare began. This gave schools and school leaders, as well as the Ministry of Education, time to think about what education might look like in the next few months.

In many other countries, teachers had to start teaching remotely as quickly as a week after schools shut down. My friend, a teacher in Atlanta, USA, shared how she has been working more hours these days than when her school was open. She spends her days participating in group and private video conferences, preparing for classes and giving feedback. And while teaching remotely is tough on teachers, it is also not a feasible exercise for many in Nepal because of lack of connectivity and resources.

Around the world, children’s access to educational opportunities depends on their access to resources. Despite great disparity between classrooms in our country, schools narrow the inequalities between pupils; in schools, all students have access to the same resources. School can offer every student a few hours to learn in a safe environment; it can be a safe haven for students who live in abusive environments and a respite from household work. Even though there are problems in how learning happens in classrooms, schools reduce inequality. In that sense, despite all technological advancements, schools remain important and relevant.

While schools are closed down, parents with resources may be able to supply their kids with online resources. But digitising our textbooks and taking classes online is a solution for the privileged few. While individual schools may be able to successfully teach their students using the internet, nationwide attempts in distance education will render no real results as only 17 percent of Nepalis have access to broadband. Local governments must step in to provide children with learning opportunities and make up for the differences that socio-economic status and other inequalities create.

During the 2015 earthquake, kids were out of school for an additional month or more while aftershocks subsided, school-buildings were assessed, and makeshift learning spaces were created. During this time, I had the opportunity to be a part of an initiative called Nawa Marga. This initiative, led by Karkhana and the Rato Bangala Foundation, focused on helping the school community overcome the trauma of the earthquake before ‘normal’ teaching and learning activities could start in schools. As a part of the programme, I went to Dhading where I facilitated teachers’ sessions in which we shared our experiences of the earthquake and its aftermath.

What we realised was that while we were worried about traumatised children, many of us were ourselves dealing with trauma. Until we felt safe, until we addressed that trauma, we could not teach or learn.

Five years later, schools are closed again, and they will probably remain closed for a few more months, even after the lockdown ends. The kids are scared. My ten-year old neighbour in Ilam tells me she isn’t worried about her education; she doesn’t want her school to open because “there are a lot of people in school” and the virus might go around. When I ask her what she wants to do until school opens back up, she shrugs.

We must not pressurise students to learn their lessons and prepare for an exam when the future itself seems so uncertain. We must not push for six-hour, eight-period school days. Transitive verbs and the concepts of algebra can only be a distraction for students who are afraid of losing their loved ones, worrying about next weeks’ meal or being separated from their family and friends due to the lockdown.

Perhaps, in the absence of regular schooldays, we will be able to turn learning into something other than reading and memorising outdated lessons that say that something is either Math or Social Studies or Science, when most things in their lives are already Math and Social Studies and Science.

Local governments understand their populations in a way that those in Kathmandu, or even at the provincial levels, do not. Interventions may vary depending on whether a majority of students in their area have laptops at home or not, and how the recession that follows this public-health crisis is going to affect families in the area.

Municipalities and rural municipalities may prepare recurring packages for each student based on their age and grade level and consisting of childrens’ books, other educational materials such as readings about certain issues or a few worksheets and stationery. When the lockdown ends, but physical distancing is still necessary, teachers may meet with small groups of students a few times a week to learn. Regardless of grade level, teachers could read a poem with their students and discuss what emotions it stirs in them. In another meeting, teachers could use local examples and scenarios to talk about the local economy and the recession with students older than eight years of age in a simple way. With younger kids, they could go on walks, paying special attention at times to all the triangles they find on their hike, or to the different kinds of leaves they see that could lead to a discussion on plants. They could even talk to students about how the public health crisis is impacting them, how they feel like their civic duties have changed in these times or about the increase in domestic violence during lockdown. These discussions will help them process what they see in the world around them.

Local governments, or coalitions of local governments, may also partner with local radio stations to create programmes for students, arrange for students to use school computers to learn research skills, or where resources allow, coding or graphic design. In the absence of school as we know it, the federal government’s per child fund may be rerouted to pay for a local library or a computer instructor.

This is also the perfect opportunity for teachers unions to step in, use their networks, and live up to the motto, “teacher’s unity for rights and responsibility,” of their umbrella organisation, the Confederation of Nepali Teachers. Along with providing teachers with resources on how to encourage learning in such times and how to teach remotely without technology, the union could also create a depository of teaching material such as stories, newspaper articles and worksheets that can be used from a distance.

As experiences at home and abroad teach us, no educational initiative is successful without the participation of teachers. In the absence of the regular structures that we are used to – school days, subjects, terms, periods, or a hierarchy of subjects – what does quality education mean to individual teachers? This break from schooling is a good time to get used to the idea that teachers, not the federal government, must get to decide what materials to use and how to explore different topics with their students. It is a good time to explore complex issues such as domestic violence and economic structures in ways that our curriculum doesn’t allow for.

When schools start back up, we must make a mindful effort to ensure that education is the ‘great equaliser’ that it is meant to be. A few hours away from household work and parental abuse is great, but schools need to be more than that. And while it is unfair to expect schools to make up for deep structural inequalities in society, schools do have immense power to create change. Teachers can cut through social hierarchies by being respectful towards all students, by paying attention to how caste and class relationships sneak into school premises and by addressing problems as soon as they are visible. Schools should also ensure that available resources such as computers and libraries are used well so that students, especially those who do not have those resources at home, can benefit.

An extended school closure may help local governments, school leaders, and teachers realise that they are capable of making the best decisions for the children in their communities. It is an opportunity to strengthen the role of local governments in education and to truly decentralise education.

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