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"Education union drives for context-appropriate solutions to tackle Covid 19 challenges", by Shri N. Rangarajan & Dr. J Eswaran

In March 2020, the tropical heat was rising in Tamil Nadu, India. The teachers were in the thick of handling lesson planning, engaging with students and uploading our progress for the final term of the academic year in a buzzing school environment. The state government announced a complete lockdown in state capital Chennai first. Teachers wondered what is in store for them and the children with the threatening news emerging about COVID-19 cases and casualties all around the world. Before they really had time to grasp the situation and put any contingency plans for this unprecedented pandemic, the Tamil Nadu state was brought under complete lockdown and the state- run primary schools were shut until further notice.

The primary school teachers were posed with a particular challenge that is shared by many low-middle income countries (LMICs), where the contact with the students and their parents had to be established in a very unusual setting.  It’s been over 14 weeks of school shut down now due to COVID-19 pandemic, which is mounting the challenge to retain interest and engagement with the largely economically under-privileged students living in remote, rural areas, towns and cities in Tamil Nadu state and almost throughout India.

The parents of the vast majority of the elementary school children are daily wage workers, or temporarily employed and unemployed. Given the very threatening, socio-economic situation created by COVID-19 situation, the Tamil Nadu Elementary School Teacher’s Federation (TESTF) teachers joined hands to provide a variety of community support and leadership activities. These include raising public awareness among communities to encourage social distancing, hand washing, maintaining good sanitation facilities in a limited resource setting and overcrowded residential areas. TESTF members were the first set of government employees who willingly donated one day of their monthly salary to the government upon the wider call from the national leaders to contribute towards the COVID-19 situation. In addition, TESTF members also campaigned among their members to raise funds towards the ‘Chief Minister relief fund’ dedicated towards COVID-19 pandemic actions in the state of Tamil Nadu. In this adverse situation, the passionate fundraising among the Union members resulted in raising Rs 1, 06,51,977 (€125,525) towards the relief funds highlighting the community commitment of the TESTF members.

While the TESTF office bearers and members made coordinated efforts to provide immediate relief commodities including face masks, disinfectants etc., to enforce social distancing measures in local communities and awareness information dissemination as community leaders, they realised the importance of continued professional development and engaging with students under these extraordinary circumstances. Towards that, the teachers recorded class room-like teaching sessions to be telecasted through the government educational TV channel ’Kalvi TV’ and participated in online courses that guides technology based teaching methodologies for the “New Normal” world. However, the conundrum of how to contact young children in remote areas that offers the only learning opportunity and the stability that comes from school system appears increasingly bleak for a primary school teacher.

A wider survey on the effects of this pandemic on our schools and students has clearly shown us that primary school education is at peril since the majority of our students have no access to any digital communication tools. It is evident that face-to-face teaching is most crucial at this age than any other levels of education. The prospect of home schooling is quite difficult for most of our students where the daily life has turned into a toil and uncertainty is the norm in their domestic front. The learning solutions through any form of electronic media is least effective in these very young children where engagement and retaining attention are challenging without adult supervision.

The compounded challenges involved in primary education in deprived communities warrant global attention and practical solutions rather than postponing ifacing up to the situation and planning to use schools as pandemic treatment centers. TESTF in Taminadu opposed the idea of using schools for pandemic quarantine or treatment centers but were willing to work with the government to identify approaches and develop policies that would prioritise government school children’s education. We have therefore utilized this summer time to identify and propose solutions through our own learning groups, task forces and online groups set up during the last two months.

Nevertheless, the enthusiasm in offering education, feeling of social responsibility and commitment towards facilitating a good learning environment realized by the teachers cannot come into fruition if it is not accompanied by sufficient funding, support, guidelines and strong policy implementation. Provision of basic necessities such as clean water for handwashing, soaps and sanitizers, much needed staff training for socially distanced learning and teaching activities are mandatory. It is also crucial to make plans, allowances and acquire new resources to maintain good sanitation facilities, periodic deep cleaning for every school in the post-pandemic period. The schools and teachers are central to many communities, therefore, they could facilitate school-based awareness programs for students and parents for months after school reopening.  Our advocacy approach is to call on the government to provide the safest learning environment for primary school children so that the post-pandemic situation does not impact on the most  vulnerable  citizens of our country. Implementing and sustaining all of these recommendations is paramount to negate student dropouts, disengagement, and poor school experience.

Overall, the primary school teachers and the biggest Teacher’s association in Tamil Nadu, the TESTF have resolved to march forward steadily but strongly holding our under-privileged children with us into a post-pandemic brighter future. However, the governments around the world should recognise the global challenges involved in primary education in deprived communities and prepare practical solutions and policy changes involving teacher unions, relevant experts and stakeholders.