In the last week of May, Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray announced the beginning of the academic year in the state by June 15. While it did not imply that schools would be open, Thackeray asked the education department to treat education as an essential service and arrange for online schooling. His announcement, however, has elicited mixed reactions, with experts pointing to challenges ahead.
After the state government asked departments to check for the possibility of online classes, many local bodies conducted surveys. NewsClick has accessed a survey by the Nashik Municipal Corporation. The survey mentions that out of 27,924 students learning in municipal schools in Nashik, parents of 6,384 students do not use a mobile phone and 16,027 students have television sets at their homes. It added that the parents of 11,012 students do not use an Android-enabled phone and that 9,362 parents were part of school WhatsApp groups out of 10,183 parents who use WhatsApp.
It is the ground reality of Nashik, one of the more developed cities of Maharashtra. Keeping the statistics in mind, the issue of connectivity for online education will be a serious challenge for many.
As per the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), there are 2.27 crore houses in Maharashtra. Out of those, only shree present (three per cent?) have television sets. About 52% of households in urban areas have digital connectivity, whereas in rural areas, the number is just 27%.
Dr. Mrudul Nile, a Professor in the Department of Civics and Politics in Mumbai University, believes that the academic year needs to start soon. "There cannot be any doubt about the need to start the academic year. For that, however, the government must keep a few things in mind. Providing internet access to all needy students is one of them. It should work out a plan to give students mobile data at the cheapest rate. In addition, universities must be told that the enrollment of students should not go down. Efforts have to be made to ensure that every student enrolls," said Dr. Nile.
However, some teachers have their doubts regarding the need for online classes at the moment. Kapil Patil, a Member of Legislative Council from Mumbai Teachers constituency, has expressed his concern. "Online (classes) cannot be the option for schools. The government should know that in semi-urban and rural areas, teachers are helping the administration in countering the COVID-19 pandemic. They need to be relieved of their duties. We also need to strengthen digital infrastructure for teachers as well. This will take time and without proper preparation, one should no go in for online education," said Patil.
There is also a serious danger of students from rural areas dropping out of the proposed system. Dr Narendra Kale, Management Council member of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University (BAMU), Aurangabad, said that the issue of network connectivity and the lack of infrastructure would deprive students of education. "How will the government provide network connectivity in rural areas? It will result in students gathering around in a cyber cafe at the nearby market. It will be a threat to physical distancing. This decision is very city-centric and the government needs to re-think it," said Dr. Kale.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which is opposition in the state, has also cautioned the government about the push given to online education. “We will not oppose it. In future, we will have to go with a mix of both ways (online and offline). However, the lack of infrastructure is a serious issue. We will have to take students and parents on board. No student shall remain deprived of the basic right to education," said former education minister Ashish Shelar.