In an attempt to draw attention to their concerns about losing out on their education as schools and colleges continue to be shut due to the Covid-19 pandemic, some students of Kolkata’s Jadavpur University have started organising offline classes on a street outside the institution.

Called “Bikalpa Classroom” (alternative classrooms), the initiative is the brainchild of members of the Students’ Federation of India. Classes are open to students from other universities too.

The classes were initially supposed to run for three days from August 10 but the enthusiastic response prompted the organisers to continue their effort.

Two classes are usually conducted each day, each for an hour.

Class in progress. Credit: Koushik Das

Each day’s timetable is released a day in advance on the Facebook page of the Students’ Federation of India’s Jadavpur University Local Committee.

“This initiative has got a positive response because the problems are genuine and I think our initiative will continue getting this great response till the government decides upon something,” said Subhadip Bandopadhya, a second year postgraduate student of Bengali at Jadavpur University.

Professor Nilanjana Gupta teaches a class. Credit: Koushik Das

Universities across India have been shut since the end of March 2020. Though institutions in bigger cities and towns have been holding classes online, the lack of access to computers and smartphones and poor connectivity have prevented many students – especially those from marginal backgrounds – from joining these virtual classrooms.

Besides, online sessions are a poor substitute for traditional classes, students said. “I have understood the importance of offline classes once I started doing it online,” said Arko Mukherjee, a third-year economics student at Jadavpur University.

He explained: “The whole concept of sitting with each other and doing classes is not there anymore. Interaction on WhatsApp during classes cannot replace the interactions during offline classes.”

Added Professor Nilanjana Gupta of Jadavpur University’s Department of English, who taught a session at Bikalpa Classroom: “There is always a different pleasure in taking offline classes. Class is an interactive experience for the students as well as the professors. We are missing that so much.”

She noted that a college does much more than just awarding students academic degrees. “It recognises and nurtures the potential of a student,” she said. “In online classes, I don’t even know my students properly.”

The students behind Bikalpa Classroom criticised the government for not issuing clear information about when colleges would start again. Students noted that universities were still shut even though cinema halls and malls were functioning.

Credit: Koushik Das

Bandopadhya said that the organisers of the pavement classes are ensuring that Covid-19 protocols are being followed, with constant checks on the use of masks and sanitizers. But he said that maintaining social distancing is a challenge sometimes.

This would not have been a problem if the students had been allowed to use the college campus for the initiative, he said. “We had earlier submitted a proposal to the government where we suggested a process for the step-by-step reopening of the college campus,” Bandopadhya said. “But they didn’t pay any heed to us”.

Gupta said: “I think that the term ‘unsafe’ is being used to stop specific initiatives. Shopping malls and cinema halls are re-opening. Only schools and colleges are closed. When the lockdown guidelines are officially declared by the West Bengal government, the first line is ‘school, colleges, and universities shall remain closed’. Whatever happens, that line will always be there in the guidelines.”

Credit: Koushik Das

Ayan Dawn is currently pursuing a Masters in English Literature at the University of Delhi and is interested in research, writing, cinema, photography and journalism.

Koushik Das is currently pursuing a BA in journalism and film studies from Calcutta University. His primary interest is photography.