Open Edu Institutes

Gitanjali, a brilliant girl student of Bhadrakh district, is a sad person today. The reason: she is not able to attend the online classes being imparted to the college students. She does not have an android phone to connect to the online classes. What to speak of a smart phone, she has no access even to a normal feature phone as her father is an owner of a village grocery shop. Her family has one mobile phone which her father carries to his shop and there is no question of her getting a scope to attend classes.

This is not an isolated case in Odisha, but a sorry state of affairs of students across Odisha for the last 150 days. Schools and colleges are closed since March in view of the pandemic and schools are out of bounds for students.  According to UNICEF data, about 1.26 billion students across the world are out of their classrooms for the COVID-19, including nearly 300 million students from India. In Odisha, the number of students out of school is not less than 50 lakh, an official said.
Even though some students have access to smart phones, many fail to get net connectivity for the online class. Take the instance of the students of Swami Sivananda Sanskrit College in Deogarh. The students have to climb on to 150 feet high overhead water tank to attend online classes.  However, the State Government, both in the school and mass education and higher education departments have issued instructions to schools and colleges to undertake online classes without realizing that it hardly solves problems of the underprivileged students.
The schools and colleges across Odisha have remained shut since the beginning of the academic session in April. The children are languishing at home with no provision for studies. What will these students do? What will be the fate of Class-IX and X students who will appear in their crucial board examinations soon?
The rise of insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir and in any parts of the world has direct links with closing of educational institutions. Therefore, it is better for the society at large to open schools and colleges with restrictions imposed to fight the pandemic without further delay, opined a former Minister, Higher Education.
Echoing former Minister, a senior mandarin also narrated his experience how the elderly students of Palestine shared classes with teenage engineering students in India as the schools and colleges remained closed for years together in their countries. A former Vice Chancellor recalled how smart classes were set up in different colleges of Odisha sometime ago, but could not be operational due to lack of internet connection in all places.
Technological development is essential which should cater to the needs of both the rich and poor, urban and rural students. The government just cannot make policy for the urban and rich students only.
The policy makers, who direct teachers to start online classes in the state like Odisha, hardly understand the ground reality. As per the letter of Odisha’s Rajya Sabha MP Amar Patnaik to the centre, tele-density in the state is much lower than the national average.
“As per TRAI data released in January, 2019, the all-India average of tele-density was 91.82 per cent whereas it was only 77.22 per cent in Odisha. What is distressing is that the latest TRAI report released recently reveals that the tele-density in the State has further gone down to 75.65 per cent. The quality of internet services is such that people in remote areas climb up trees to get connected,” the MP wrote.
Nearly 12,000 of the about 60,000 villages in the state have no access to mobile networks and most of these villages are located in LWE-affected districts. Nearly 50 per cent of villages in Kandhamal, Koraput, Malkangiri and Rayagada districts have no such access. As many as 1,652 villages in Kandhamal, 1,020 in Koraput, 601 in Malkangiri and 1,498 villages in Rayagada district have a very weak mobile network, informed Patnaik.
However, the people managing the COVID-19 crisis do not want to take the risk of opening the schools and colleges as the pandemic is at its peak. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has already made it clear that the battle against COVID-19 will continue for a long period. Though the government stressed on saving lives, it has now also taken care of livelihood.
It is a good gesture on part of Chief Secretary Asit Kumar Tripathy, but the top mandarins should also care for the future of lakhs of students by opening schools. Besides, the pandemic has provided an opportunity for the state administration to expand the tele-connectivity to the interior areas. Now, the state must put forth its demands before the Centre and ensure that the entire state gets covered with optical fiber on war footing. 
State has to give equal importance to the education of students in order to correct the future social divide. The rich children having  good access to internet and technology will certainly get an upper hand and march ahead while the poor students in remote areas will lag much behind their city counterparts. One should not forget that most of today's IAS, IPS, IFS, top doctors and engineers have their roots in villages and not in cities. Therefore, it is paramount duty of the policy makers to think of the students living in difficult situations.
In regard to pandemic, one can at least open schools for the students in Class IX and X along with colleges across the state. These children are educated and they are matured enough to understand the importance of maintaining social distances, wearing face mask and hand hygiene apart from other guidelines imposed both by the state government and the central government.
Meanwhile, the Government of Punjab has started distributing 50,000 smart phones among the students. It is high time that the poor children are identified and given smartphones to keep them engaged in the online classes till schools and colleges are opened.  
If we can manage the offices with 50 per cent staff, why cannot the students attend classes on an odd-even schedule? Some states are planning to open schools and colleges from 5 September, Teachers’ Day. The Odisha Government should follow suit and allow opening of educational institutions after evolving a specific strategy. All it needs is a strong willpower which Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik amply possesses.

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