‘It wasn’t easy’: Toppers in times of COVID-19 lockdown

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Amal Syed was sleeping in her hostel at Chandigarh, where she had gone for her JEE entrance coaching in January, when her phone’s ringtone woke her up last week. It was her friend who gave her the good news first. 

Syed, 18, had scored 500 out of 500 in the class twelfth exam.

On 8 March, the Jammu and Kashmir State Board of School Education (JKBOSE) declared the results of the class 12th while the results of the 10th standard were declared last month in the evening. 

The students of both classes had appeared in the examination amid the COVID-19 pandemic last year; 75 percent of the students cleared the examination of tenth standard while over 80 percent cleared the examination of twelfth standard.

Syed believes that attaining education in Kashmir is difficult as compared to the other parts of the world. “Every other year, there are lockdowns for one reason or another,” she said. 

In August 2019, when New Delhi revoked J-K’s limited-autonomy and imposed curfews, the educational institutes also remained shut. Though the government announced the reopening of the schools a couple of times, the classrooms remained deserted as parents felt insecure in sending their children out amid a lengthy communication blackout. 

When over a million students returned to schools after seven months in March last year, the COVID-19 lockdown forced a renewed lockdown and students, like Syed, had to manage attending online classes on restricted internet speed. 

“It was not that easy for us,” Syed said. 

During the online classes, she would list the questions and confusions to be asked and clarified and oftentimes the class would snap and no internet connection would pop-up on the screen.

Syed said the online classes were “undoubtedly” total chaos during the initial days. “It was very difficult to interact with my teachers and ask them to clear my doubts,” said Syed. “Also, the 2G network made it even worse.”

Syed said she was forced to skip a number of classes due to network issues and online classes were not much effective. “Although my teachers at school [Candid Higher Secondary School] and tuitions tried their best to help me throughout the year.” 

More than 1,30,000 students appeared in the 12th and 10th standard examinations across Kashmir when the internet in the region was still restricted to 2G. The high-speed mobile internet was restored on 6 February after a mammoth shutdown lasting 550 days.

“Good news”

After receiving the joyous news of scoring a perfect result, Syed rushed to thank God and offered two rakat namaz.

Over 500 kilometers away in Srinagar’s Bemina neighbourhood, the Syed family was in a celebratory mood. She said that her parents are proud of her and her elder siblings were overwhelmed with the “good news”.

“If you are determined and are working hard, you can achieve anything,” she said.

Syed said her dreams were never confined to achieving full marks but she wants to excel in the field of mathematics and technology. “And I just wanted to make my parents proud,” she said. 

Looking at the performance of the students of Kashmir, Syed said “hats off to every Kashmiri student for performing this well and studying in such situations … where we didn’t have the internet and there were lockdowns for 2 years.”

Education in Kashmir 

The education process in Kashmir has slowed down due to the frequent clampdowns in the region. The educational institutes have hardly opened since August 2019 to January 2021, initially because of the clampdown and then due to outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic. 

The closure of educational institutes, however, is not rare in Kashmir. Schools and colleges had remained shut for almost seven months in 2016 as the region had burst into widespread protest following the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani. The educational calendar was again disrupted in early 2017 as student protests had erupted in the region.

The closure of educational institutes since August 2019, however, remains the longest shutdown. 

The Private Schools Association of Jammu and Kashmir (PSAJK) filed a petition in January 2021 before the Supreme Court, seeking restoration of high-speed internet services. The Association had stated that the restricted internet speed had severely impacted the quality of education for the students across Jammu and Kashmir.

As per the statement, the syllabus for the 10th and 12th standard was reduced by 40% for annual examinations scheduled in 2020 after the Jammu and Kashmir State Board of School Education (JKBOSE) considered the severe impact of the shutdown of schools and the inability to shift to remote learning across the region.

A total of 75,132 students— 38340 boys and 36792 girls —had appeared in the examination for the 10th standard amid the pandemic last year and 75 percent cleared the examination. It included 76.06 percent girls and 74.04 percent boys respectively.

Girls also outshined boys in 12th standard and have secured top positions in all streams. The pass percentage among girls is 83 percent while among boys it is 78 percent. In all 46987 out of 58397 students who appeared in the twelfth standard examination were declared successful.

No phone, no education

While most of the students were facing problems because of low-speed internet connectivity, many were going through the anxiety of not owning a phone and missing out on everything that would be taught in online classes. Parveena Ayoub Chachi was one of the many.

Ayoub belongs to Gujjar community in Latiwazah village of central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district where the family of six members live in a single-room tin shed.  She would borrow notes from her friends as she didn’t own a smartphone to join her online classes during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Having to share one room with the entire family would disturb her preparations during the day, however, Ayoub found a way out. She would sit in one of the corners of the shed during nights to prepare for her 10th standard examination. “I chose nights. I had no other option,” she said.

On the morning of 26 February, Ayoub’s English teacher visited the Chachi family to congratulate them. The topper was cleaning her house and as soon the teacher made an announcement of Ayoub securing 490 out of 500, the family was joyous. “We distributed Ladoos [sweets],” said Ayoub.

The Chachi family was both happy and proud of Ayoub. “They always supported me,” she said, adding that even when she would keep the lights on during the nights while studying.

The teacher, who came with the news, had been a huge help to Ayoub during online classes that she couldn’t attend. Other than borrowing notes and books from her friends, she would sometimes consult her teacher when facing any difficulty. “He knew I didn’t have a phone. He always helped,” said Ayoub. “Even if I had, Kashmir didn’t have 4G.”

Ayoub studied at Government Higher Secondary School Kurhama. “ We are not financially sound. I couldn’t afford to go for tuitions,” she said, adding that she had to work hard to achieve the goal. “Education is important.” 

Ayoub’s father Mohammad Ayoub Chachi is a labourer and often struggles to make ends meet but he always wanted his daughters to attain education. “I am so happy for her. I am proud to see her achievement despite all the hardships,” said Chachi.

“I am grateful to Allah, even if I keep thanking him for life – it is not enough,” said Chachi.

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