'School bus' helps children bridge education gaps in India made worse by Covid-19

NEW DELHI – A bus is parked on the side of a dirt road next to a slum in Vasant Kunj, an upscale area in South Delhi.

Children climb onto the bus and take a seat as a cartoon illustrating the Hindi letter that sounds like “Ta” plays on a television located in the front of the vehicle.

The two dozen children, aged between four and 13, watch transfixed. As the video ends, it is time for music class followed by a lesson on shapes.

Ten-year-old Momiran Khautoon sits attentively, occasionally turning to talk to her friend in the next seat as she draws a rectangle and triangle on a slate.

“School is closed and I find it difficult to follow the online classes,” she said. “I like coming here.”

Children around her chatter merrily in between the classes on what is, essentially, a school on wheels.

Run by non-profit group TejasAsia, the bus is one of four – appropriately dubbed Hope buses – that visit two locations each day.

After 2½ hours of classes, the children receive a meal, often consisting of dhal and rice, to boost their nutritional intake. It also acts as an incentive to get them to return.

The “school bus” initiative has been running for seven years, but it has come into greater focus, attracting media attention, at a time when education has been adversely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, with the poor bearing the brunt of disruptions.

There are multiple such initiatives across the country, from schools on pavements and under flyovers to social activists visiting slums to teach poorer children in an effort to ensure that they are not off the grid of learning.

“When we told the kids and their parents that we were coming back with the bus (after the second Covid-19 wave), kids were lining up. Some had schoolbags. Some 300 to 400 kids came to one location. We are seeing a surge in numbers. But how do we handle it?” said Dr Marlo Philip who, along with his wife Sheril, co-founded TejasAsia.

Dr Philip, who moved from Australia in 2005, started out believing that he would educate about 25 children. But his enterprise has grown to involve 1,000 children.

“Kids say they miss the school atmosphere. Some say we miss our friends. The vast majority or 90 per cent (of the kids in the slums) don’t have smartphones. That’s the biggest drawback,” he said, referring to online learning.

School closures in India have been among the longest in the world, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

Hit by two waves of the pandemic, the second one even more devastating than the first, India has seen primary schools shut for more than 16 months. Those in senior classes have returned to their schools, which reopened after the second wave eased, but on different timelines across the country.

Some of the parents of children attending classes on the Hope buses have been victims of the pandemic, forced by circumstances beyond their control to turn to free education.

Classes inside the Hope bus, a school on wheels initiative run by TejasAsia. ST PHOTO: NIRMALA GANAPATHY

Some of the parents of children attending classes on the Hope Bus have been victims of the pandemic. PHOTO: REUTERS

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Ms Khaju Bibi had to take her 10-year-old daughter Jasmine out of a private school, unable to afford the fees after she lost her job as a domestic helper during the second wave. Her daughter is currently receiving an education only through the TejAsia bus initiative as Ms Bibi tries to get her enrolled into a government school, where education is free.

“I want her to study and learn. I don’t want her to be like me (working as domestic help),” said Ms Bibi.

A study by the Azim Premji University, covering 16,067 children in 1,137 public schools in 44 districts across five Indian states, pointed to the impact on education, particularly of young children, during the pandemic.

It found that 92 per cent of children on average had lost at least one specific language ability from the previous year across all classes. These included writing simple sentences based on a picture.

Education experts said primary school children were worst affected, although not uniformly across the country.

TejaAsia staff guide children to a parked Hope Bus in New Delhi on Aug 6, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

“It’s a mixed bag. Of course, they are missing out on formal schools. But the situation is different in different states. Some state governments have made much more efforts to reach children… and in at least getting study material across to children,” said Ms Leena Chandran Wadia, a senior fellow, at the Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai.

“We know that those very young, between the ages of three and eight, need a lot of investment. They are going to be badly affected. The older age group can make up.

“Right now, every little effort (like the school on wheels) helps. I think the children in homes where the parents are uneducated or do not have access to books and cannot get access are the ones who have suffered the worst setback.”

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