On a grey afternoon in July, children were out on the streets in Flower Garden, a slum in the Cottonpet area of Bengaluru. A few were playing with toys, others rode their tricycles, and one stood with a racquet in hand laughing uncontrollably at something. Oviya S stood quietly outside her house, her eyebrows drawn together, staring intensely.

Oviya is 13 years old. She had just returned home after spending four hours cleaning apartments in a nearby middle-class locality.

The last time Oviya sat in a classroom, she was 11 and in Class 5. When her teacher at the government school she attended announced in March 2020 that school would be shut prematurely due to the coronavirus pandemic, she didn’t mind. When the teacher called her mother to say that exams would be cancelled too, she was very happy, she now recalled with a faint smile. But one and half years later, Oviya is sad and disappointed.

“I want to go back to school,” she said. “I really miss my school, classmates and teachers.”

When the two-month long lockdown ended in June last year, Oviya, the eldest of five siblings, started accompanying her mother, Sumathi S, to work. “My mother was scared that if I remained idle at home, I may fall into the wrong company or get involved in bad activities,” she said.

Sumathi worked in five apartments – sweeping, swabbing floors, washing vessels – and cleaned the common areas in the building. Oviya began by helping her out. But soon her mother became pregnant with her fifth child and Oviya found herself going to work on her own.

Her father, a driver, had run out of work a long time ago and the burden of the household had fallen completely on her mother. In the last few months, it has come to rest squarely on Oviya’s shoulders.

No textbook or phone

Oviya should have been in Class 7 but she hasn’t laid her hands on a single book since March 2020. Not even her Class 5 books. “We weren’t allowed to bring our books back home because teachers were worried that we would mishandle or tear the books,” she said. “So most of our textbooks are at school.”

The Class 6 academic year came and went, but Oviya never even saw her textbooks. She has had virtually no contact with her teachers.

While private schools have been holding online classes for their students, government schools like the one Oviya attends have avoided them – for a reason. “Even if they had [conducted online classes], I would not have been able to attend it because I do not own a smartphone,” she said. “Nobody in my family does.” Most students in government schools do not have access to gadgets.

Keenly aware that children from affluent families continue to study through online classes, Sumanthi said: “We cannot afford it. We can only wait for schools to reopen. But it stresses me out that two years have gone to waste. My younger children don’t even know the letter ‘A’ anymore.”

Missing the midday meal

The closure of schools has impacted the family in another crucial way.

Oviya and her siblings no longer get to eat lunch at school. The midday meal scheme, first initiated in Tamil Nadu in the 1970s, was formulated to increase enrollment in schools. Through the scheme, students in government schools get one nutritious meal per day at their school. For many children, it is sometimes the only meal they get.

Last year, when the pandemic led to school closures, the midday meal came to a stop. It was only in October, after criticism mounted, that the Karnataka government announced that students would be provided with dry rations at home in place of the school meal.

The rations – wheat, rice, tur dal – would have helped Oviya’s large family tide over a difficult time. But neither she nor her younger sister, who is enrolled in Class 6 in the same school, have received their share of rations. Her brother, enrolled in Class 5 in another school, received them once, about two months ago. The rations lasted the family about 20 days.

“Oviya’s other classmates have been getting rations,” Sumanthi said. “But the teacher didn’t call us to tell us how to pick it up. We don’t know why. I asked her to go find out at the school but she has to go to work, so she hasn’t found the time.”

In July, the government decided to directly transfer the cooking cost of the midday meals to school students in the form of cash. But so far, the family hasn’t received any money.

Losing interest in studies

Oviya misses school. She cannot wait for it to reopen again. In school, English is her favourite subject, Kannada comes second. “I always pass all my papers,” she said.

Sumanthi praised Oviya’s performance in school. “Among all my children only she [Oviya] has an interest in studies. See, what that boy is doing,” she said, pointing to her 11-year-old son, Sandeep, who was laying out a deck of faded cards on the road. Asked what the card game was called, he muttered softly: “Split Cards”.

“This is the problem if there is no school,” Sumanthi said. “Children start learning all this nonsense. At least if they are in school, I know they are doing something productive and I don’t have to worry unnecessarily.”

While she spoke, Sumanthi also lulled her baby to sleep. The youngest child in the family has not been named yet. Sumanthi plans to have a naming ceremony in church next month. A month or two later, she hopes she can begin work again.

Asked who will take care of the baby after she starts work, Sumanthi said: “These children will.” She pointed at her second daughter, Kavya S, who had taken the baby from her hands and had started playing with her. Kavya is in Class 6, but like Oviya, she hasn’t attended a class for a year and a half.

An expert committee constituted by the Karnataka government recommended in the last week of July that all classes should resume at the earliest. Sandeep’s teachers called Sumathi a few days ago informing her that one-hour classes had started at his school. But the 11-year-old hasn’t attended any classes so far.

“They have all lost interest in school. They have become comfortable playing at home,” Oviya said, observing her siblings.

Waiting to go back to school

Sumanthi is determined to send Oviya back to school once it starts. “Oviya is the brightest among these children,” she said. “She reads English so well. Only if she goes to school, can she study and become something.”

“I have only studied till the seventh standard,” she added. “Maybe if I had studied further I would be working in an office instead of as a domestic help.”

While this conversation was underway, Oviya’s friend and neighbour, Hema, who was walking past the house with her grandmother, stopped by to talk. She had moved to Flower Garden a few months ago after her parents had a fight, and her mother decided to leave the family home, taking her along. The change of locality meant Hema had to join a new school. But since schools have been shut, she hasn’t been able to secure admissions. She should be in Class 8 now.

Unlike Oviya, Hema still has two of her textbooks and keeps re-reading them. “Sometimes I borrow from children younger than me and read their books,” she said.

Hema is worried that she has forgotten what she had learnt so far and may struggle when schools reopen. But Oviya does not have any such fears. “I have forgotten a little but as soon as they start, I’ll catch up,” she said, confidently. “I won’t have any problems.”

Hema wants to become a teacher when she grows up. Oviya isn’t sure yet. But she said she wants to go to college. “My mother has become weak now and since I’m the eldest, I have a lot of responsibility,” she said. “So I don’t know if I will be able to do higher studies.”

For now, all they want is to be inside a classroom again. As soon as possible.

This is the first part in a series documenting the impact of schools remaining closed for 500 days in India. Read the other stories here.