By Nishant S. Gurung

While countries across the globe are tackling COVID-19 in their own ways, more than 1.2 billion children around 186 countries are out of the classrooms due to the pandemic. As a result, educational institutions in Nepal as well as abroad are shifting to e-learning/alternative learning platforms.

Though the national lockdown has been lifted in Nepal, the country’s educational institutions face an uncertain future as schools are opting for digital platforms for learning. Proper framework as well as availability of technical infrastructure and knowledge to operate online classes remain a significant challenge.

According to the report published by the Nepal Telecom Authority, 72 percent of Nepalis have access to internet facilities, of which only 17 percent have access to broadband services. As a majority of the internet users rely on mobile data, which is expensive, not every student can afford internet services to access their online courses.

39-year-old Gauri Shankar Thakur is a barber by profession and runs a small shop in Gaushala. Like many others, he could not operate his business due to the national lockdown imposed by the government to curb the spread of COVID-19. Due to his frail financial condition, online classes for his children is a bane for Thakur.

“I have a 12 year old daughter studying in grade VII, my elder son is 10 and studies in grade IV whereas my younger son is five years old and studies in UKG at Himali Boarding School. I called the school recently to inform them that I didn’t have access to internet and am unable to afford a laptop or a computer for my kids. I have one cellphone which is not enough for my three children. Taking my situation into consideration, the school administration suggested that my children use the school’s computers and internet for online classes.”

Sujita Kumari Thakur, 12, and Sujit Kumar Thakur, 10, view their online assignment on a smartphone in Gaushala, on Monday, September 28, 2020. Sujita studies in grade VII and her younger brother Sujit studies in grade IV. The school helps them attend their online lessons by providing free internet as they cannot afford an internet facility at their residence. Photo: Nishant S.Gurung/Aawaaj News

Like Shankar, online classes are not a feasible option for hundreds of families in Nepal due to limited resources. Some families are not tech savvy even if they own a device for their children to attend online classes.

“My son’s school has been conducting online classes since June and my daughter who has just completed SEE helps him with his classes. I am not well acquainted with technology, which makes it difficult for me to monitor my son’s classes. With just one hour a day, I am skeptical whether these classes are beneficial for him since he keeps telling me that he doesn’t understand a lot of things taught online. We have been in dialogue with the school to extend the duration of online classes and we are expecting a positive response soon,” says 31-year-old Pramila Shrestha.

Anish Shrestha, 12, a grade VI student in Sapna Batika School attends online classes from his residence, in Kupodole, Kathmandu, on Sunday, September 27, 2020. Photo: Nishant S.Gurung/Aawaaj News

“Shifting to e-learning was difficult for us as many of our teachers were not familiar with online teaching techniques and operating various online software. We organized an orientation session for our teachers so that they are able to better utilize online platforms. Before we resumed online courses, we invited parents to discuss how we can implement a safe and efficient e-learning platform for our students. However, there are many parents who cannot afford computers and broadband services. For such children, we provide a morning session from 10-11 am where we give them smartphones if they don’t have one and free internet services,” says Prem Bahadur Bogati, coordinator of Himali Boarding School.

Tri Ratna Boarding School in Bungmati, Lalitpur has resumed physical classes after holding dialogue with the parents, since most of them could not afford gadgets for online classes. The school has resumed classes by following health protocols to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Students of Tri Ratna Boarding School wear face masks and maintain physical distance as they attend regular classes in Lalitpur, on Sunday, September 27, 2020. The school has resumed regular classes by following health safety protocols after consultation with the parents. The parents agreed to the new arrangement as most of them could not afford to give their children gadgets for online classes. Photo: Nishant S.Gurung/Aawaaj News

“We have resumed physical classes in accordance to the health protocols issued by the Ministry of Education. We sanitize all classrooms and masks are mandatory for everyone. As soon as the students enter school, they wash their hands with soap and water and maintain physical distance. We also keep a record of their temperature every day and provide turmeric water once a day. We run the classes in three shifts to avoid overcrowding, which also helps us maintain physical distance. Almost 50 percent of the students have not been attending school since they stay far away, but we give them home assignments. The teacher’s also visit them from time to time. I am thankful to all the teachers who have voluntarily helped the school run classes without any salary expectations,” says Shaishab Kiran Shrestha, Director of Tri Ratna Boarding School.

Five-year-old Kripa Bajracharya of Bungamati wearing a face mask as she gazes towards her teacher after completing her class assignment at Tri Ratna Boarding School, in Lalitpur, on Sunday, September 27, 2020. Kripa is a UKG student. Photo: NIshant S.Gurung/Aawwaj News

Upper Kindergarten (UKG) students of Tri Ratna Boarding School in Lalitpur maintain social distance as they wait for their parents after school, on Sunday, September 27, 2020. Photo: NIshant S.Gurung/Aawaaj News

The Ministry of Education has allocated Rs 70 million to initiate online education across the country. Kathmandu Metropolitan City has also initiated virtual educational programs through a local radio station — Metro FM in Kathmandu valley.

However, the shift towards e-learning amid a global pandemic and frail economic background has been challenging for schools, students and parents alike. Most schools have limited resources to operate such classes whereas not all families are prepared for such systems.

In the wake of the government’s willingness to extend online education system, focus should also be drawn on expanding internet connectivity as well as educational radio programs to rural areas.