BHAWNA ATMARAM

It’s 2020. Imagine you are a child or teenager. The whole world suddenly shuts down. You are isolated at home, locked up literally. The education system is thrown into turmoil.

BHAWNA ATMARAM

Contingency plans are rapidly designed and you are thrust into the chaos of remote learning. For some, due to the availability of internet facilities and technological gadgets, it is relatively easy to get in touch with classmates and teachers. For the unlucky ones, it is an eclipse which has overshadowed their studies as they are cut off from the others.  The school calendar is elongated, throwing everyone off guard and derailing the examinations schedule and university admission plans. Stressful would be an understatement.

Fast forward to 2021. Yet another confinement. Internal school examinations are interrupted. However, major examinations have been maintained with students, parents and major stakeholders holding their breath. The new academic year has resumed for thousands of primary and secondary school students in June 2021 through a remote phase first, followed by physical presence in a staggered way with the observance of strict sanitary protocols. But the stress shows no sign of waning. A deep angst has burrowed itself into the students’ psyche. What is it like to experience the ‘new normal’ through a student’s perspective?

Ongoing local cases

Currently, local contamination cases are rife. For numerous students, their usual cheery disposition has evaporated. The world out there has become a landmine, with students from various schools having been contaminated. These schools are promptly closed for disinfection purposes but the fear lingers. What if the lethal strain of the virus has reached our shores? What if the children mistakenly rub their eyes or touch their noses without sanitising their hands? Life is now punctuated by a lot of ‘what ifs’, particularly when communication has been quite vague concerning positive cases reported at some schools.

Social isolation

Since every single gesture has to be carefully calculated to prevent any risk to oneself, classes have been downsized. Students are discouraged from hanging out in groups, with the result that they are becoming isolated from each other. Gone are the good old days of carefree chitchatting or cracking a joke at the back of the classroom. A veil of eerie silence has enveloped the once bustling classrooms, with masks hiding facial expressions. No more football matches or other games during recess. Just stillness which is so incompatible with school life.

Wariness towards each other

Being overly cautious is gradually leading to a sense of wariness towards each other. The casual sharing of books, stationery, snacks or school lunches is long gone. To what extent can one trust one another when one is bombarded with constant reminders to maintain physical distancing? For youngsters, this situation is absurd and complex to comprehend. Their innocence is taking a toll as even something as mundane as a friend sneezing is now viewed with suspicion. Is that the way we now have to live?

The hassle of quarantine

We must not forget that students have families waiting for them at home. Some of them have to deal with the anxiety of quarantine or treatment centres or that of their family members being quarantined. Once again, this entails being cut off from school that is supposed to provide a sense of normalcy during these trying times. The quarantine period is far from being a pleasant break from one’s routine. Instead, it is riddled with moments of tension, doubt and helplessness. A forceful break from the face-to-face learning experience is hardly reassuring for those students who are well and truly isolated from their family and friends. A dent in the morale!

Overcrowded buses

The agony of commuting back and from school in overcrowded buses is hardly reassuring. As a matter of fact, bus seats are narrow while ironically providing ample space for people to rub against each other, including the viruses they might be carrying. So, while students are systematically warned to maintain physical distancing on the school premises, it is confusing for their young minds to process the idea of being stacked against each other in these public buses. Hardly makes sense!

Syllabus completion anxiety

With a staggered system of physical school resumption, inevitably classes have been impacted. In secondary schools for example, some subject areas have been downsized from the initial allocation of six periods weekly to two periods. The question on everyone’s lips is whether the school syllabus will be duly completed in time. While teachers attempt to provide some reassurance to their students, the latter are well aware of the hefty challenge ahead. This massive gap must be bridged, by hook or by crook.

Problematic access to IT tools for some

One would have expected a better level of preparedness pertaining towards ensuring that all students are duly equipped for remote learning. Suffice to say that there are still students who are out of the technological loop due to financial constraints. Since educational institutions could switch to remote learning at any moment, one should spare a thought for the forgotten ones of the system or those students who have to share their smartphones or laptops with their siblings. Laptops hardly come cheap nowadays and with no subsidies in plain sight, they are bound to stay out of reach for countless students.

Financial struggles

The incredible hike in the prices of basic goods and services has undoubtedly impacted upon the family budget of innumerable families. The burden is equally felt by students who are now becoming wise beyond their years. In some cases, following job loss within the family, the financial hardship is equally shouldered by the younger members. The future might seem bleak in the midst of so much uncertainty and the mental load is hardly fair for such young people who are forced to mature at a faster rate.

Trying to keep afloat

No matter what, the cardinal principle is the safety of the child. Everything else is secondary. In such gruelling times, students are trying their level best to keep their heads above water. Their fighting spirit is commendable despite the ubiquitous probability of COVID-19 striking anyone at any time. Protecting them remains our paramount concern in order to help them keep afloat. In this context, a word to the wise is enough!