The doors of schools in West Bengal are still closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic but there are some open spaces that have become centres of learning in and around Kolkata.
Thrice a week, in three different batches, a group of 10 to 12 students gather on a bylane in the Dhakuria area, adjacent to Lake police station in south Kolkata. The students, mostly aged between 3 to 12 years, are greeted warmly by their teacher Piyali Biswas as they arrive for their classes. Ensuring that the children are masked up and maintaining social distance, she gets down to work. Her classes, spanning three hours, cover a range of subjects ¬ from basic alphabets and numbers to sketching and painting.
“The students come from a very poor background. They show exemplary focus and concentration while learning their lessons. What we are trying to do is provide learning support to them so that they can join mainstream schools when the situation improves,” Piyali said.
However, these learning spaces do not come with chairs and tables as the children are seated on plastic rugs, with their school bags by their sides. Occasionally, when it rains, the students and teachers run to take cover at a nearby shelter.
The initiative is a part of Kolkata Police’s ‘Naba Disha’ (New Direction) programme as part of which several NGOs are engaged in imparting education to children belonging to marginalised sections of the society. The teachers have been recruited by the NGOs.
The project was started in 1999 with an aim to address lack of education, lack of a support system in the form of coaching classes and proper nutrition and recreational facilities for children from slums and colonies.
Piyali said it would be rewarding for her to see most of her students emerge from the shadows of illiteracy on September 8, which is observed as World Literacy Day. The teachers and volunteers at these learning facilities said that the parents of most of these children are daily wage earners or domestic helps who cannot afford smartphones for children to access virtual learning.
At another unnamed facility in Rajarhat’s Kashinathpur village, which comes within the ambit of Patharghata gram panchayat, Bikash Mukherjee teaches students in an open field under a shed covered with asbestos sheets. “At least ten of our students are enrolled in state-run schools. However, as the schools are closed, they come here to catch up on their lessons,” Bikash said.
Like Piyali, Bikash said that most of his students cannot afford devices to log in for online classes. To prevent crowding, the 48-year-old representative of a local NGO has made arrangements for them to come in small batches. He holds three classes every week, with each group comprising 20 students. “I hope the children go on to achieve full literacy. Once the schools reopen, those enrolled in them should not feel that they lagged behind as their parents could not afford a smartphone,” Bikash said, emphasising
on the importance of literacy and education among the most marginalised sections of the society.