We already discussed how the pandemic has affected several types of schools and students in different ways. Boarding or residential schools, however, are a completely different ball game. To understand how COVID-19 impacted residential schools, we spoke to Mr. Anil Gupta, the Director of Sacred Heart School in Siliguri, West Bengal. He is also the President of the Kurseong Sacred Heart Educational Society. Additionally, we spoke to Mr. Prafulla Pradhan, the school’s Principal, to understand his views on India’s National Educational Policy (NEP) of 2020.
How does Sacred Heart normally operate? How has the pandemic affected the school’s operations?
Mr. Gupta: Our school is a residential school which has two main operational components: the educational component and the residential component. The pandemic has resulted in the near-complete closure of the residential component of the school. The educational component is still functioning, albeit very differently.
How has the educational component of Sacred Heart changed? How was this change brought about?
Mr. Gupta: All of our classes are now online. The teachers were under a lot of pressure because they were not used to online teaching. The teachers’ workload was essentially doubled, as they had to not only teach the children online, but learn how to teach online as well. They were previously used to using blackboards and dusters. The transition has not been easy on the students either.
We make sure we do our part in creating a routine for the children to follow from home. We have virtual school-wide assembles through Zoom, following which we have 40-minute teaching periods. Students must display their videos and present themselves dressed in full uniform. We do our best to ensure the atmosphere of our school is maintained online. Everyone must be well-dressed and in uniform. As a student, you have to get with the programme.
Of course, some students are facing legitimate problems continuing their education online due to network issues and the like. In those cases, we do our best to help them out. We use WhatsApp and send over recordings of the classes to them.
We have students from Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, the UAE and India. Within India itself, our students come from 12 states or so. The international students do not struggle with their internet connections so much. It is the domestic students from remote places who have connectivity issues. As a result, we have to be flexible and not be too strict on our students given the circumstances we find ourselves in.
As for the teachers, our school is lucky in that our Principal, Mr. Prafulla Pradhan, was working at Shri Ram’s School in Delhi. He had previously taken a course for one year about online teaching, which was a happy coincidence for us given the situation the pandemic had put us in. As a result, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the closure of schools on March 19th, we were quick to act and decided to take our classes online within a week. However, that raised the question regarding who would train the teachers.
For this reason, we contacted Shikshangan Education Initiatives, which is run by Ms. Devika Nadig and Mr. Vijay Gupta, who we have been familiar with for a few years. They helped train our teachers for the purposes of online teaching and would host sessions every evening after 4pm.
The teachers have definitely improved throughout the digital transition process. We have a variety of coordinators and level managers who observe the classes. By monitoring everything closely, we ensure that the teachers come prepared to class and that the teaching quality remains high. Although there are a few exceptions, by and large, the teachers have done a good job and have risen to the challenge.
Students of Sacred Heart School, Siliguri
How has the school’s relationship changed with the parents of its students?
Mr. Gupta: Some parents have found things very difficult since the start of the pandemic. They were not used to having their children at home, much less learning at home for such a long period of time. Many of the parents used to ask me why their children were not performing and thought their inability to teach at home was affecting their child’s performance. However, there will always be some children who perform better academically compared to others, which is perfectly natural.
We know each and every individual parent and keep them informed of their child’s progress. Even though some of the parents say they cannot teach their children, I always emphasise the importance of monitoring their children and ensuring that they do not misuse their mobile device and get distracted. In the physical absence of the teachers, it is up to the parents to enforce discipline and ensure their children concentrate at home.
Some of the parents have requested that their children be allowed to stay at the school, as it is a safer environment than their homes. This may be due to a variety of reasons such as connectivity or health and safety reasons. The students are always indoors at home and do not have the games or activities they had at school. They are keen on the school reopening as soon as possible, as they say we take good care of their children. There is also an assumption that the students will listen to their teachers more than their parents.
Although it would have been easier to have the students on-campus and maintain a bio-bubble and routine, the government’s rules and regulations are clear, so we cannot reopen just yet. As I emphasised earlier, the result of these circumstances is that the parents’ role in educating their children has become more important than ever. The teachers, however, are on-campus alongside around 30 families.
What are the non-academic problems Sacred Heart has been facing? Are other boarding schools facing the problems you are, to your knowledge?
Mr. Gupta: We have 2 boarding schools in Siliguri. Schools in the hills have bad network coverage that gets worse during the rain. Those schools are in trouble from an online teaching perspective. The management of the school is quite worried about the financial impact of the times we live in.
If parents do not deem the quality of online education sufficient, they would not be willing to pay. Since the government has told the schools not to increase the fees and to avoid taking anything other than tuition fees while paying staff full salaries, the financial outlook becomes quite grim.
Opening a private school is tough business and requires serious investment. It can only be done with a trust or a society, which usually have not-for-profit clauses. As a result, we do not have reserve funds to pay the teachers their salaries. We have to collect the fees and pay the teachers from what we collect. 85% of our salaries are collected from the tuition fees we collect on an annual basis, the other 15% goes into maintaining the school’s infrastructure. As a residential school, we also receive funds from the residential component, which is no longer operational on the scale it once was. Costs have not really come down since the hostel and its staff have to be maintained. The only thing that has really come down is the cost of feeding those on-campus.
How sustainable do you think the solutions your school has created to mitigate the impact of the pandemic are? Do you see any long-term changes in your model as a result of the pandemic?
Mr. Gupta: I am not sure how sustainable our current solutions are given our model. At the moment, we are adopting a wait-and-see approach. The measures we are taking are very much short-term in nature. That being said, we did not expect the lockdown to last for such a long time. However, if we panic, then everyone panics. So it’s better if we take things a day at a time. I don’t think our model will change that much in the long-term.
Mr. Anil Gupta, Director of Sacred Heart School, Siliguri.
What are your views on India’s National Educational Policy of 2020?
Mr. Pradhan: The government had actually sent a draft of the NEP to the schools and advertised it to the educational community. The first draft raised some serious concerns amongst the community because some of the ideas that were discussed there were almost impossible to implement. The government thus asked many educational institutions and Principals to give their feedback online regarding the changes we wanted to see in the policy. As a result, the policy that ultimately came out had ideas that are already in place in India’s good schools. The NEP essentially aspires to make what India’s best schools do the benchmark for the rest of the country’s educational institutions to follow. By raising the standard of what Indian education should look like, it gives momentum to the good work being done by educators around the country.
The main concern that has already been raised is the fact that this ambitious policy will require a huge amount of resources to put into action. Some schools lack basic equipment inside their classrooms. Where are these resources going to come from? How will they be distributed and paid for? At the moment, a very small percentage of the nation’s income is dedicated towards Indian education. Everyone is looking forward to seeing how this policy will be implemented.
Author’s Note: These interviews were conducted in the months of July and August.
Mr. Prafulla Pradhan, Principal of Sacred Heart School, Siliguri.