When India’s Covid-19 lockdown began on March 24, 2020, Burhanuddin Lakkadghat had just completed his senior kindergarten tests at his school in Vasai, a suburb north of Mumbai.

Under normal circumstances, he would have started Class 1 in June, after the summer holidays. But Burhanuddin’s school, which follows the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education or ICSE board, began digital classes right away.

These were not online classes held on video conferencing platforms. Instead, they were short videos of recorded classes that parents – almost always mothers – received on the class WhatsApp group from their children’s teachers. For homework, the teachers sent out worksheets that young students filled out with the help of their parents.

“His school did not start proper online classes till December, so for most of his Class 1 year, I struggled to make him study,” said Zainab Lakkadghat, 34, Burhanuddin’s mother. “He would keep saying he was not in school anymore because he was not in front of a teacher, and would refuse to study anything. I did not know how to deal with him.”

In December 2020, Zainab was relieved when the school finally began conducting organised online classes on Zoom. School time was finally streamlined, and there was a teacher directly talking to students and interacting with them.

But eight months into this new routine, Zainab is exhausted and waiting for schools to safely re-open.

“The online classes go on for just two hours in a day, and they give loads of homework after that,” she said. “I cannot push him to do everything – most of the time he is either playing in the building or watching videos on the iPad.”

Class 1 and 2, Zainab believes, are the foundational years of school education. “I feel that foundation has been compromised for my son,” she said. “I don’t think he is learning as much as he should be at this age.”

Racing through the syllabus

On July 15, nearly 6,000 schools in rural Maharashtra opened their gates for secondary students from Class 8 to 12, in areas where Covid-19 has been under control. With the second wave of the pandemic subsiding across the country, Gujarat, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh also resumed physical classes in the last week of July, and several other states are set to follow suit in August.

Everywhere, however, state governments have prioritised reopening schools for older children in secondary and higher-secondary school. There has been almost no discussion on reopening of schools for younger children in primary and secondary classes. For children without access to laptops, smartphones or consistent electricity, this has led to a complete absence of education for nearly a year and half.

But even among urban, economically-privileged families, parents like Zainab are worried about the impact of prolonged online classes on their young children’s education.

At the start of the lockdown in 2020, Zainab was a full-time housewife, managing all household work for her husband, in-laws and son. “I was very depressed and frustrated because I got no support from my family,” she said.

Juggling the roles of both parent and teacher at home was difficult, with seven-year-old Burhanuddin refusing to sit still with his study materials for longer than 30 minutes at a time. Even after online classes began in December 2020, and Burhanuddin advanced to Class 2 in June, it did not get easier.

“The teachers have been racing through the syllabus, even though many parents have told them that the children are struggling to cope with it,” said Zainab. “Most of the burden falls on the parents.”

Safety first

In April, Zainab took up a job at a call centre with an international bank, working 10-hour night shifts from 5.30 pm to 3.30 am. “I started working because I was being taken for granted at home, and I wanted to do something for myself,” she said. “I worked from home for the first two months, and after that I have been going to the office.”

Zainab is now out of the house for nearly 13 hours on weekdays, and she has been cutting down on sleep to ensure that her son’s study schedule is not disrupted. “I get home from work at 5 am, but I wake up at 7.30 am to get him ready for his first online class at 8 am,” said Zainab.

This first 30-minute class covers “light” subjects – general knowledge, value education, art. The second and final class, from 9.30 am to 10.30 am, is reserved for heavier subjects like maths, science and English.

“My son is very good at learning orally. But he struggles with writing and I am not pressurising him to do all the written homework, because it is a lot,” she said. “I cannot schedule specific homework time for him either, because he does not listen to me.”

Three weeks ago, Zainab enrolled Burhanuddin in a home tuition class with a teacher in her building, and believes this has helped increase his study time a bit. “But he is now used to long hours of play time, and I cannot really monitor what he is doing and what videos he is watching online all the day.”

Even though she wants her son’s school to re-open as soon as possible, Zainab is clear about prioritising safety. “Parents are talking about school re-opening on the WhatsApp group, but I would not want it unless it is absolutely safe,” she said. “After seeing how bad the second wave of Covid was, I don’t think we can afford to take a risk.”

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