Published: 29th September 2020
How this small school in TN set up micro classrooms to help their most vulnerable students during the peak of the pandemic
The classes started on July 15, the birthday of Tamil Nadu’s Father of Education and former Chief Minister K Kamaraj. So far, no student has been affected and all are hale and hearty
The class starts at 10.30 am, but when teacher Murugappan Ramaswamy gets to the teaching centre around 9.30 am to set up things, he would already find the students there. Waiting for him. The very same kids who just made it when the bell rang at school were now arriving an hour in advance.
While the privileged children in the country easily slid into the online mode, the rest were left to fend for themselves. The socio-economically disadvantaged and marginalised students in the country have largely been deprived of an education for the last few months because they didn’t have a mobile phone, couldn’t afford food, leave alone internet recharge or lived in areas that were too remote to have a connection or to physically reach. Which is why when the Thai Thamizh Palli in Tindivanam decided to set up ‘micro-classrooms’, these children were there, an hour in advance, to ensure they didn’t miss out on any portions and some, because it would probably be one of two meals they would get to eat.
A student writing on a temporary board
The pandemic has mercilessly ripped through the country and has divided it further into the haves and the have-nots and opened up a wound that was probably just healing, caused by the idea that only those with money could access a basic human right like education. It is one thing to tell a child that they would be updated with the syllabus once they are back if they didn’t have phones or data, but what do we do to help children cope psychologically cope with feeling like their peers are getting on with their lives as their’s remain stuck because their parents can’t afford a phone? Child marriages and labour rates have been increasing in the last few months too, statistics show. “During one of our meetings, writer Vizhiyan told us that if these children continued to be deprived of classes, our dropout rates are going to shoot through the roof. That’s when I knew we really had to do something,” Murugappan, the manager at the school said. The school mostly caters to children of Dalits and others from economically and socially backward families in the region, “These children didn’t have phones and they mostly live in a one room hut and so there was no way that we could get them to attend any online classes. We assumed that the schools would open in three months, so we decided to let the students till the fifth grade to stay home and invited the 6,7,8 graders to join us for evening classes.”
The School wanted to revive the concept of the Thinnai Palli, which is an age old concept of holding classes on a raised platform, in the verandah or an empty room in the house. But the teachers didn’t hold any classes, they just decided to converse with the students. See how they were doing.
Sometimes, older kids also help out with the classes
Children’s writer Vizhiyan and his father, social worker, Senthamil Selvan have come up with a proposal to address the issue of lack of digital facilities by suggesting the concept of micro classrooms - Classrooms of five students held in a home or a public space near their homes adhering to all norms of social distancing and sanitisation. The classes would be taken by either a teacher, a volunteer or even a parent and would comprise one hour classes in shifts with a pre-planned tight syllabus. The idea was not to squeeze in regular school work in this one hour but to keep the students updated with concepts and revive their memory on all that they had learnt, just so they don’t find themselves completely at sea when schools reopen normally again.
“Vizhiyan told us that it would be very difficult to get students interested in school again. We could lose them forever. There was no way that parents could also bring their children too far away places since most are daily wage labourers. So we had to go to them. The students should be able to get ready on their own and walk to the centre. We decided to go with eight per class. One hour class in two shifts with a lunch break,” Murugappan said. The school was very certain that they had to provide food for the children because their parents would not be able to do so. Murugappan said that the parents only return at 6-7 pm and cook dinner. The next day, the children only manage to grab some kanji (rice water) and forego lunch. The meals were cooked at the schools and through some sponsors, the food was carried to the respective centres. Now, how did they decide these centres?
Students at lunch
The administration first conducted a meeting with some of the parents, got the addresses of the 202 children who go to the school. They traced 14 streets across which most of the children resided, they clubbed some streets together and finally decided to identify 12 centres. “We asked the parents to suggest any areas where we could get eight students and maintain proper social distancing and other protocols. We then went on to divide students into a morning shift batch and an evening shift batch,” Murugappan said. So 10.30 to 11.30 am and 1.30 to 3.30 pm. “The first batch children would eat after class and the second batch students could eat before class, stay one for another hour and go back home. Initially we just held regular classes and then after a week and teacher’s feedback we decided classes 1-4 would attend one centre and the rest of the students would be divided among the other centres.”
The classes started on July 15, the birthday of Tamil Nadu’s Father of Education and former Chief Minister K Kamaraj. Murugappa credits the school's principal A Mariya Antony for being the force behind the whole programme. So far, no student has been affected and all are hale and hearty. The school has gloves, sanitisers, masks and disinfectant sprays at all the centres. When the cases were peaking, the centres would be sanitised everyday, now since in their region, the cases have slightly come down, the sanitising happens every alternate day. But maintaining so many centres would have been a huge burden for the administration, which is why parents themselves take turns to clean the centre and stay in the school from 10 am to 3 pm.
The lunch spread for the children
While 11 of the tutors are teachers from the schools, three are volunteers. The volunteers are all alumni from the school who are engineers or degree holders. “One thing I’ve noticed is that usually our children should know the 12-16 tables. But mostly only till 12, the students know well, even our teachers find it difficult to memorise the tables after 12. Now we found out at the start of these micro clases that students can only tell upto 10. That is when we realised how important it is to keep these students in touch with these concepts, so we are giving Mathematics priority and then go on to other subjects,” Murugappan tells us.
While these classes were concentrated in one village, the administration was approached by parents from two villages, Amanapakkam village and Vairapuram about 12 kilometres away. From here, there were 13 students who wanted to attend the classes and the parents requested for the classes to be started there as well. “But there was no way that we could travel so far or get the food delivered on time. Every day, on the dot at 12 pm, the students get their food and so we had no way of doing that here. But one of our teachers travelled from that region, so we decided to start a centre there as well. But we decided to give the parents raw materials and they were thrilled that their kids could go to school again,” Murugappan explained. The school is currently organising 13 micro classrooms.
Sometimes verandahs, sometimes rooms
This is only a continuing story of how the school has for a long time taken extra steps to help their students, “Once a student fainted during the morning assembly and he told us he hadn’t eaten in the morning. Then we asked the other children if they were also missing their morning meals and most said they missed their breakfast too because they only ate dinner the previous day and drank rice water for breakfast sometimes. That’s when we decided we needed to make arrangements to provide breakfast too.” So the school got people to sponsor breakfast or sometimes, for marriages, birthdays or funerals, people donate to the school, their own alumni donate their salaries to the school when they find jobs. The school manager said it wasn’t enough that the school provided food but the food also had to be nutritious for the students. So unlike other midday meal providers who impose ‘Sattvic’ diets of young children, this school ensured every student got one egg every meal. “Protein is a must for children this age and so we made sure that they were provided with eggs. So the children come to school happily and leave happily,” he said smiling.
Murugappan and his team are very happy that so far all the students have stayed safe and that they are also able to stay updated with school. He wishes the same for children from other schools too, “Last time, four children came to one of the centres and asked us if we knew where their classes are being held. And when we said we didn’t know, they asked if they could join our classes but we can’t do that since they don’t belong to our school, so we were helpless. That made us feel very bad.” And that reminds us that the pandemic and unpreparedness and insensitive of authorities continues to leave vulnerable children out of the education system, which is why people like Murugappan, Vizhiyan, Selvan and their team deserve to be celebrated during these devastating times.