AS schools across the country struggle to stay open for more than a few days at a stretch, a primary school in Satara district has not closed for seven months now. Professor Balaji Jadhav taught where he could on site, under a tree, on the veranda, crouched in the yard, to make sure his 38 students got their lessons.
The one-teacher school Zila Parishad in this remote village of Satara offers grades 1 to 4. Jadhav says he decided physical lessons were a must when he noticed that his students, mostly from of nomadic families, were falling behind. With schools officially opening in Maharashtra after a long Covid shutdown only on December 1 last year, Jadhav got around this by not taking attendance. Yet the students came and kept coming.
Jadhav, 35, who has won the state’s ideal teacher award as well as innovative teacher awards, has succeeded with the support of officials and parents.
Panchayat member Balveer Narale says they didn’t hesitate because they had seen Jadhav’s work and his efforts to teach. Savita Pawar says they were grateful to Jadhav as parents like her struggled to keep the kids focused. “There was almost no learning, even those who had access to the devices were too small to sit carefully in one place,” she says.
With the news of Vijay Nagar School, parents from nearby villages moved their children here. At least 11 students from private schools and villages 10 km apart are now enrolled in its ranks.
Jadhav has been trying to implement changes at the school since his posting there in 2017. He previously collected donations to provide students with electronic devices and the school with an LCD projector. Since the school has no electricity, he made an agreement with a neighbor to share the electricity, for a fee.
When schools closed due to Covid, devices her students already knew how to use came in handy. “But despite this, I noticed that a group was left out. Parents would not take online education seriously, employing children for housework or tending livestock. Or the parents complained that the children were distracted,” says Jadhav.
“We closed the school in March 2020 during the first lockdown, when we didn’t know anything about the coronavirus, and only one case scared people. By August, the first wave was over and the village had no more patients.
Realizing the effect on his students during the school closure, he first tried to catch up by going to their homes, taking lessons for one or two of them at a time. However, this proved too much for him to continue on his own.
“That’s when I decided to go back to school,” says Jadhav. He started by calling students in batches, no more than five at a time, teaching them outdoors, maintaining physical distance. Within months, says Jadhav, the difference showed.
But then came the second wave, and as cases were reported in the village, the school closed again. “From December 2020 to March 2021, it continued. I decided to call students in batches when the cases went down to zero, and we were open until summer vacation. After that, since I started school again in June 2021, we haven’t closed,” says Jadhav.
Maharashtra Education Commissioner Vishal Solanki said they were aware that in many remote areas where Covid cases are minimal, primary school teachers are conducting offline lessons informally. “It is at the discretion of the local authorities. It means teaching in open spaces, under trees or on playgrounds,” he said.
As Covid-induced school closures continue, calls are growing louder for in-person classes to begin, as children remain the least vulnerable to the virus. In a recent interview, Jamie Saavedra, director of global education for the World Bank, said there was no justification for keeping schools closed.
Newsletter | Click to get the best explainers of the day delivered to your inbox
Jadhav’s achievement is also commendable as Satara is one of the five worst affected Covid districts in Maharashtra. Since June 2021, when the school opened, the district has recorded 97,583 cases and 3,357 deaths.
In addition to regular classes, Jadhav has started what he calls a “multi-skill development program.” “I downloaded a piano app and taught the keys to the students. Every week, I give them notes for a new song to practice. I also taught the kids archery, Warli art painting, soap making,” says Jadhav.
Pranaya Ajit Narale, 10, who is in class 4, is among the enthusiastic students. “Before, when there were online classes, my grandparents sent me with cattle. Sometimes I carried a mobile phone with me, but I couldn’t pay attention,” she says.
Chetan Galande and his wife, both doctors, residents of the village of Mhaswad which is 15 km away, now send their two daughters to this school. “Our village has bigger and smarter private schools. But a dedicated teacher is far more important. We have seen the work Mr. Jadhav does, the change in his students,” says Galande.
The village elder Murlidhar Gudim also witnessed this change. “During online lessons, my grandson would turn off the video and sleep… Today he speaks such clear English, knows his numbers, can count. He is disciplined.”
Gudim speaks for many when he adds: “I think all schools should be reopened. Not a single case has taken place here despite the school having been open for months. So why deprive children of education? Isn’t this loss huge? »