Every few minutes in the course of a one-hour long online class, Pramod Tripathi, Class 5 teacher at the municipal-run Poisar Hindi Pathshala in Mumbai, halted his explanation on the functions of the human brain to let students into the virtual classroom.

“Please don’t chalk it down to tardiness,” he explained later. “Not all students have access to a mobile device when the class begins, so I let them in whenever they are able to join.”

Mid-way through Tripathi’s class, a student frantically requested that she be allowed to exit the class briefly as her father had to receive an important incoming call. The family had just one mobile phone and was waiting to hear from the hospital where a relative, critically ill, was admitted. The teacher, familiar with the challenges faced by his students’ families, was accommodating.

Poisar Pathshala is one of 1,238 public schools run in eight mediums by Mumbai’s civic body, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. A report by its education department, published in the last academic year, had underscored the asymmetry of digital access in its schools. Only a little over half of the students, it said, had logged into online classes. Among those missing were students whose families had migrated from the city after a nationwide lockdown had drastically reduced work opportunities in the city. Their numbers were estimated at nearly 30% of students enrolled in Class 1-8. Many others hadn’t logged in because they had no access to smartphones or data packs, the report said.

While planning for this academic year, lessons from last year had been taken into account, said Mahesh Palkar, BMC’s education officer. “For the four main mediums of instruction, for Classes 1-10, we have 40 dedicated YouTube channels through which we broadcast lessons,” he said. “If a child misses the Zoom class because of inability to access a device at the time the class is being conducted, the child can access the lesson on YouTube.”

In all schools run by the BMC, the academic year began in mid-July with a 45-day bridge course to help students who had missed classes last year to catch up, along with a revision of the syllabus of the previous year. Tests were held every 15 days during the course to determine learning outcomes. The results are still awaited.

Class 5 teacher Pramod Tripathi conducts online classes over a smartphone.

Ameeta Bablu Singh let out a humourless chuckle when asked if her children, aged 10, 9 and 7, would fare better this year on learning outcomes.

On a humid afternoon in July, she was busy at work inside her 8x10 feet room in a slum in suburban Mumbai, scooping spoonfuls of sindoor into small plastic bottles, tapping out the excess powder, sealing the bottles and slapping on stickers in small metronomic movements. Forty-four of these boxes would make one bag that would fetch her Rs 10.

“Our three children share one mobile phone,” she said. “Many of their classes clash. Very often the mobile data runs out before the end of the month and we don’t have the money to recharge the data pack. How much do you think the children would have learnt?” she asked.

Her husband, Bablu Singh, who worked as a personal driver to a businessman in Juhu before the pandemic, was summarily sacked following the imposition of the lockdown. “I couldn’t find a job for months. My relatives kept urging us to return to Motihari, but where are the jobs in Bihar?” he asked. “I took out a personal loan last year to tide over the crisis. I am now being harassed over missing a repayment installment.”

Earlier this year, Singh hired an auto-rickshaw which he now drives for a ridesharing app. He works for 14-15 hours every day. “After accounting for fuel, rent for the room and the autorickshaw, we barely get by,” he said. “What if one of us falls sick?”

His wife was emphatic about the larger loss her family faced: “Already our kids have limited opportunities. These two years will set them back in a big way.”

Ameeta Bablu Singh's three children share one smartphone.

In the house abutting the Singhs, 10-year-old Deva Bind prompted his sister to unmute the microphone. “Miss is asking you to recite the poem, do it.”

Aaradhya, all of seven years, refused. She had missed the last two classes because their data pack needed recharging, and was not confident of participating in the class.

As the siblings argued over whether Deva had used the phone to play the video game PUBG, their mother Simrika intervened and quieted them down.

“My husband is a plumber,” she said. “During the lockdown last year, work had almost fully dried up. He took up whatever jobs came his way, he also worked as a night watchman in Borivali. I also do what I can, sitting at home, to add to the income.” A full day’s work, either removing loose threads from garments sent by a local small scale unit, or making sindoor dibbis, fetched her just Rs 50, she said.

The BMC had announced financial support for the families like the Binds. “We were told that the school will reimburse us for the data packs, even provide a device,” she said. But they received no such help.

And yet Bind pointed to a silver lining: “At least we don’t have to pay any fees like those in private schools.”

Simrika Bind is relieved she doesn't have to pay private school fees for the education of her children, Deva and Aaradhya.

Private schools make few concessions for their students, attested Anita Pandey, mother of five – four girls and a boy.

All her children were enrolled in a private school before the pandemic struck. The older girls, now in Classes 9 and 10, both academically crucial years, needed stability, so they stayed on at the same school. But since paying fees for all their children was out of the question, the Pandeys withdrew the younger girls from the private school and enrolled them into a BMC-run one.

Anita Pandey said her husband worked as a small-time broker in the real estate industry and earned brokerage fees for every sale he helped conclude. “You know how many flats were sold all these months?” she asked. “Zero.”

For now, her husband has taken up a job as a delivery man for the courier service, WeFast. “He works long hours,” she said.

Harshita, their oldest child, explained that given the nature of jobs her father does, he needed to carry a smartphone. The family had just one other smartphone which all five children shared, which meant each of them missed multiple classes everyday. “All assignments are also sent online, we struggle to finish them,” the Class 10 student said.

In March last year, just a week after the lockdown was imposed, the Pandeys faced a terrible crisis. Their boy, aged six, was using the public latrine when another boy from the neighbourhood threw a lit match into the chamber pot. “There was a sound like a small blast, my boy was covered in flames,” Anita recalled with a shiver.

The boy spent three weeks at the government-run KEM hospital. The damage to the skin and tissue on his arms and lower body is extensive. “He will need further surgery,” Anita said. Although the procedure itself is free in government hospitals, the family will have to bear the cost of medicines and other expenses, which will add to its financial precariousness.

Anita Pandey with her five children.

About 10 km away in the slums of Laxmi Nagar, Goregaon, Sunita Gupta was busy preparing dinner for her family of four, while also assembling bulb holders. For every 150 light holders she assembles, she is paid a paltry Rs 10. “I aim to assemble at least 1,500 of these in two days,” she said.

It has been a tough year, she explained. “Last year, my husband, who is an autorickshaw driver, struggled to bring money home. We borrowed a mobile phone device from a relative so that my three children can study, but it’s been a struggle,” she said.

Her 13-year-old daughter Khushi nodded in agreement. “Most kids I know face this issue of sharing one device among siblings. Luckily, my classmates live close by, so on the days that I miss class, I ask for their help,” said the Class 8 student.

Among the solutions crafted this year by the BMC’s education department is the creation of local help networks of students and parents. The civic body has appointed Palak Mitra, meaning friends among parents. These men and women coordinate with children from their area of residence, handing over worksheets and study material. Similarly, Balak Mitra, or student volunteers, have also been appointed as a peer-support network.

The teachers also have had to adapt, not just to the challenges of teaching and creating study material for online use, but also the task of tracking down students who consistently miss classes, ensuring that school worksheets reach all students, and working extra-hours to field questions over phone calls from students unable to attend class.

To detect probable cases of teacher absenteeism, Palkar, the education office, said every ward had designated observers. They conducted random checks by logging into online classes unannounced to confirm teacher attendance and audit the quality of teaching.

Khushi Gupta, with her classmates Priti Gupta and Khushi Yadav.

One teacher who had gone the extra mile, Khushi and her friends agreed, was their Class 8 mathematics teacher, Sarika Gupta. She was available to clear their doubts even after school hours. She held extra classes on Saturday. She made tutorial videos to help them understand how to use technology better.

“Teachers have to be accommodating, given the challenges the students are facing,” Gupta said.

She regularly posts pdf copies of newspaper reports of various events on the class WhatsApp group to encourage students to stay informed.

Khushi, whose family does not own a television set, said she followed the fortunes of the Indian athletes at the Tokyo Olympic games through these news reports. “It is on YouTube too,” her younger brother Raj informed her, inviting a gentle rebuke from Khushi: “Mat chalao, data khatam ho jaiyega.” Do not watch it, the data will run out.

Sarika Gupta is popular among her students for the extra time she devotes to clearing their doubts.

All photos by Smitha Nair