Since July 2021, 40-year-old Thane Zilla Parishad (ZP) school teacher Shankar Patil has being travelling more than 40km each day from his house in Bhiwandi city to Thane’s remote rural areas for one reason alone: to convince students that had dropped out of school during the pandemic to return to the classroom.
Most of the hamlets are on hillocks or in remote locations where buses or other public vehicles cannot travel. Most buses drop two to three kilometres away from the villages, thus Patil used his own two-wheeler to commute.
Until the end of October, Patil found 100 children out of school and convinced them to enrol in the nearest ZP school with the help of fellow teachers. Despite Patil’s weak financial situation and ailing family members, he never faltered as his mission was only to ensure no child stays devoid of education.
Like Patil, close to 100 other school teachers from ZP schools visited more than 150 brick kilns and thousands of families in the district’s tribal areas, construction sites and labour camps, and managed to enrol 319 children in three months. These students – children of migrant workers that had returned to their hometowns during the pandemic – had no access to school for over a year. Some also stay in the district’s hills, making it even tougher to access.
With schools reopening on November 22, getting them back into the classrooms quickly was important. Anil Kurhade, district coordinator of inclusive education and acting district coordinator for ZP education, Thane, said, “As soon as we realised that schools are set to reopen, we told teachers to coordinate with them. We began looking for these 323 children four months ago. It was not easy, considering most teachers were also busy with the vaccination programmes and other Covid-related activities.”
Patil added, “With schools closed, the teachers were helping the government to conduct door-to-door surveys to identify people with symptoms or check how many people are vaccinated. A few also went door-to-door in remote areas to create awareness to get vaccinated. They were busy for the entire day with these activities.”
Thane district has a tribal population of over 1.5 million and there are 1,131 schools with 85,000 students in the ZP jurisdiction. As per ZP records, 323 students had dropped out of school during the pandemic from various rural belts. While the teachers have managed to trace 319 students, four are still to be found.
Kurhade added, “There are still four more who are not yet traced and have migrated out of the district, as per our information. This is a continuous process as there will be more who will settle in the district in the future and we will ensure they do not remain devoid of education.”
Out of those enrolled back in schools, 47 children are from Shahpur, 65 from Ambernath, 11 from Kalyan Rural, 154 from Bhiwandi and 46 from Murbad. They are between Grades 5 and 10.
The state education board had permitted schools to adopt the online teaching mode. However, children from tribal or rural areas could not afford mobile phones. Most of the migrant working population had left town. Consequently, many children quit education and helped their parents to earn their livelihood. Most would sell vegetables, fruits or even help in farming. Besides, for most parents, education was never a priority.
Sangita Jadhav, a social worker from Murbad, said, “It is a common phenomenon that students leave school midway depending where their parents’ livelihood takes them. The children remain uneducated as repeated breaks in their study patterns leave them without focus on studies. For parents, education is not the priority. Rather, feeding all mouths in their family is.”
A few enthusiastic teachers like Patil suggested that they could get details of the students during their home visits for Covid surveys.
Kurhade added, “As and when possible, our teachers started visiting families, labour camps, brick kilns and tribal settlements. They had to show the students some innovative projects, get them involved in some group activities to bring their interest back to studies.”
It was during these visits that teachers realised that hundreds of children had migrated and were not traceable.
“In some cases, we realised that there were a few children who continued to study regularly. We met an 11-year-old boy who regularly wrote his thoughts on a blackboard outside his school gate. He continued to do so diligently through the pandemic. When the blackboard stopped getting updated, we realised that the child had migrated along with his family. Some of our teachers managed to trace the boy and enrolled him back in school.”
Patil said, “Bhiwandi teachers decided to spend money from their own pockets and look for children who are out of school. It was tough to convince those above 12 years. Some of them had been involved in anti-social activities, while many others had formed their own strong opinions. Some thought they would have to enrol in lower classes as they lost two academic years and were thus unwilling. We started conducting small sessions with these students to involve them in the learning process and we provided parents some financial help. Mid-day meals and access to computers and other devices at school were other attractions to get them back to school.”
Patil said he came across a family with three children – two girls and a teenage boy. Of these, the girls were enthusiastic to return to school but the 14-year-old boy was disinterested. “As a result, the family discontinued the studies of the girls as well. Similarly, in another village, there was a girl who had to look after her toddler sibling while the parents were at the brick kilns. Hence, we suggested making provisions for a creche near the brick kiln itself. This is when they agreed to send their eldest child to school,” Patil added.
Nilam Pisal, 33, a ZP block coordinator, visited up to 12 villages in Thane and Bhiwandi. When she reached Vadavli village in Bhiwandi, she saw many students aged barely seven working with their parents. No one would speak to her. She said, “There were 18 such children in Vadavli. The parents usually earned separate daily wages for the work done by these children, so they were not ready to talk. Despite several failed attempts, I stayed put for over three hours in that village. One parent told me my wait was futile as the parents won’t be able to make ends meet if children stopped working.”
Pisal was persistent, though. She told them that they would get mid-day meals, fruits and chikkis at school. “This also did not deter them. So I told them to give me their children’s responsibility for two hours in the morning, after which they can help the parents. After much persuasion, they agreed and we were able to enrol all 18 to school.”