Kavya Kothari used to like going to school. But the six-year-old absolutely loves ‘zooming’ into virtual school. While earlier her twin sister Krisha and the other kids would run to their classrooms from the school’s main gate, Kavya, who has a congenital spinal defect and can’t walk, had to be wheeled inside on a pram. The Kotharis’ house help, ‘aaji’ would sit in class with Kavya and carry her to different parts of the campus for extra-curricular activities. During the physical education period, Kavya stayed behind in the classroom with only aaji for company.
But the scenario changed this March. Kavya and Krisha now sit together on a mat in the living room of their house in Pune and attend two and a half hours of school via their parents’ laptop. The 10-minute breaks between lessons go in sharing sandwiches and giggles. “Kavya is less self-conscious, less awkward now. She also feels empowered as she can log into sessions by herself,” says her physician-mother Simpal Kothari.
While remote schooling has its drawbacks — too much screen time, too little social contact and a wider gap between the rich and the poor who don’t have access to technology — parents and educators have noticed that some kids are thriving in the digital classroom. The shy child who sat unnoticed in the corner is speaking up; the adolescent with social anxiety is more confident now that he is facing the webcam rather than 40 pairs of eyes, and the kid who was bullied for being ‘different’ finally feels like she belongs.
Take the case of Mumbai school girl Vipasana Sen. The 13-year-old, who used to get below average results last year, is now scoring “almost full marks” in online tests. This is because the Class 8 student was ill at ease in the physical classroom. She used to get bothered by loud sounds — such as the bell or the thud of the duster falling on the floor — that are part of school life. These would trigger her tinnitus — a condition characterised by ringing or buzzing in the ears — and also make her nauseous. “Two years ago, Vipasana used to stand at the school gate and refuse to enter. Now she can’t wait for class to start. She simply adjusts the laptop volume to her liking and concentrates on her lessons. This is really a breakthrough for us,” says her mother Priya.
Juhi Yadav (name changed) who studies at a south Delhi school is also faring better in the digital space. The seven-year-old, whose father works as a driver and mother as a domestic help, had got admission through the quota for economically weaker sections but did not feel accepted. Her classmates would mock her faltering English and leave her out of birthday celebrations. Annoyed, Juhi would pick fights and eventually get banned from coming to school for a few days because of her “bad behaviour”. But her experience changed dramatically when she started learning through a laptop donated by her mother’s employer. “She aced the math test. The teachers are also very impressed by her discipline and performance in assignments,” says her father Mohan.
Distance learning also proved a blessing for Rohit Bhargava (name changed) who was bedridden after an accident in February left the bones of his right leg completely crushed and caused trauma-related complications in his heart and lungs. A rod had to be surgically inserted in his leg to help stabilise his fractured bones and the 22-year-old Delhi resident was confined to the bed. Considering his college only allows students with 75% attendance to write exams, Bhargava would have been debarred. “Online classes saved me an entire year of sitting around, doing nothing and then repeating a year,” says Bhargava, who is currently attending classes from a hospital bed. He was able to submit assignments on time despite undergoing three surgeries last week.
Aparna Panse, who heads Bal Kalyan, a Pune-based NGO that works for the welfare of children with special needs, feels digital education is also working better for some children with autism. “These children are very uncomfortable in the presence of others. They can study better in their own safe space,” she says.
Now that they have discovered the benefits of e-schooling, some parents don’t want to send their kids back to in-person classes even when the pandemic passes. “I hope we have the option to continue online school for Kavya,” says Kothari.