It is seven months since educational institutions around the country were shut down as part of efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19. The shift to online classes from engaging, interactive in-person ones has not been easy for many children, especially young ones. Loss of lively interaction with friends, reluctance to sit in the same place for a long time, lack of complete understanding of the lessons being taught and health issues stemming from attending hours of online classes are only the tip of the iceberg. It’s a serious predicament that, despite various problems involved, online classes are the only option to continue learning amid the pandemic.
Aazman A Khan, a fourth-grader at Chittagong Grammar School, starts his day at 8am with a ‘virtual’ assembly before the commencement of his classes for the day. Students are also required to wear full school uniforms to bring in the ‘school’ vibe. As students start singing the national anthem, the inconsistent internet connection across households results in a desynchronised cacophony of the voices.
School benches and tables have been replaced by beds and pillows. As classes start, Aazman feels excited to see his peers. However, he cannot say ‘hello’ to them or talks to them about the latest game of Roblox. Class timings have been reduced by 10 minutes in a bid to reduce the overall screen time from online classes, so teachers need to treat time like gold. Besides, imagine the chaotic mess that would result in 25 to 30 students interacting altogether at the same time on a virtual platform!
During the lesson, Aazman often calls out to his mathematics teacher to ask about questions he does not understand but fails to get answers as his questions get drowned in a sea of the questions shot by his classmates. He later has to email his questions to the teacher seeking answers to them.
He enjoys physical exercise classes the most because they give him the chance to move after monotonously sitting down for hours. However, he doesn’t feel the same vigour as he used to because the interaction and competition with his friends is absent from online class activities. During art classes, he misses the hands-on guidance that he used to get from his teacher, which has now been replaced by verbal instructions.
“It’s so long since I played cricket. I can’t go out to play, and at home there isn’t sufficient space for me to play cricket. I used to have cricket as an ECA (extra-curricular activity] at school but we neither play cricket online nor get training from the coach. We do many activities during online classes but cricket isn’t something we can play online”, says Awsaf Anas, a sixth-grader at Presidency International School, Chittagong.
The scenario is the same as mentioned above for most children who have been attending online classes over the past seven months; it is all the more pronounced for three to five years of children who don’t understand the concept of online classes itself. Yashawn Yashiv, a pre-schooler, stares at the screen for a while and then runs away to play with his toys. Sometimes, he just falls asleep during classes. One of his parents has to sit by him all the time to ensure that he is paying attention to classes.
Nafisa Abbas, a student counselor at Chittagong Grammar School, in a conversation with the author, says it is a great challenge to grasp the attention of children, especially those aged between 4 and 9, during online classes. She shared several anecdotes of her experience conducting online classes as a teacher. “Parents sit with their children as they do online classes and this is creating a greater dependency among them. When they attend school, they are taught to do their work independently. Now they are seeking help from parents for classwork as well. So, when schools reopen at some time in the future, this lack of independence among children in doing their work, mostly of their own, will be one of many challenges that will have to be tackled”, she elaborates.
To get a better understanding of how children are dealing with online classes, the author reached out to a number of students aged between 4 and 12, based in Chittagong and Dhaka, who have been doing online classes. And all of them expressed their preference for in-person classes over online ones. When asked about the top three things that they do not like about online classes, more than half of those students say it’s ‘cannot talk to friends’. Getting disconnected midway between lessons and oral assessment exams due to internet connectivity and electricity issues, and increased workload compared to normal school were among the other answers.
Furthermore, three-fourths of the students the author talked to say they have experienced eye problems, headaches, and back pains more often over the last seven months. It certainly begs the question of whether the higher frequency shares a direct correlation with attending online classes.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), screen time for kids aged between 2 and 5 should be limited to one hour and for those upwards of 5, it should be a maximum of 2 hours. However, the timing for online classes at most schools ranges between 4 to 5 hours, and with online classes being the only resort to continue children’s education during the pandemic, following the AHA advice is very difficult.
The author also sought opinions from parents of the young children who participated in the survey. They shared mixed opinions. Some parents believe it won’t hurt their children’s education if they skip an entire year until the situation normalises, as what they say is online classes aren’t adding much value to the development of their children’s knowledge. Others think it’s best to continue with what is on offer because of the sheer uncertainty about the future.
Children are undoubtedly missing out on some really valuable experiences of their childhood, not to mention those who don’t have access to electronic devices and internet connection and those with special needs.
Some schools around the country have made efforts to provide a better online learning experience to students by incorporating weekly counseling sessions, ‘brain breaks’ during classes, and weekly extra-curricular activities such as origami, crafts, solo games, among others. Nevertheless, online classes can never replace in-person ones for an optimum learning experience, regardless of what improvements are made to the online learning curriculum. However, given the the unprecedented crisis caused by Covid-19, online classes seem to be the only viable option to prepare children for the future.
The writer is an undergraduate student majoring in economics at Asian University for Women, Chittagong. She can be reached at [email protected]