The challenge of studying during a pandemic

We asked numerous students about their experience of learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their responses included “It is like a very long holiday”, “I miss school”, “It is a total waste of time”, “We were unable to learn through online classes” and “It is becoming very difficult for us.” July 2021 marks one year and five months since school and college students in Ladakh have been at home. The COVID-19 pandemic has gripped the world and students have suffered the most as they struggle to cope with ‘home-school online education’.

According to data from Directorate of School Education, UT of Ladakh there are 904 government schools in Ladakh (546 in Kargil and 358 in Leh) with 25,786 enrolled students (17,210 in Kargil and 8,576 in Leh). In addition, there are 113 private schools in Ladakh (67 in Kargil and 46 in Leh) with 29,059 enrolled students (13,041 in Kargil and 16,018 in Leh). Thus, there are 1,017 government and private schools catering to 54,845 children across Ladakh. In addition, many students are pursuing various higher education programmes in various institutions in Ladakh and outside. This means that a large number of students have been studying from home for more than a year. Some government and private schools did open briefly in 2021. 

Studying online

Student life has undergone a dramatic change through the pandemic. Times have changed from ‘not using a smartphone’ till a certain age, to “religiously using one” to cope with academic work. Many students have created a self-study routine that is conducive to their learning with a parent or relative supervising their academic work. However, all students seem to be facing some challenge or the other including digital exclusion, mental health, etc.

Online learning has been exerting economic stress on many families. Each student needs a smartphone, tablet or laptop to participate in online classes. These can cost anywhere from INR 6,000 for a basic smartphone to INR 25,000 for a basic laptop. In addition, one has to pay for internet access. These expenditures are beyond the reach of many families. 

Similarly, parents with government jobs are still going to work and have little time to oversee their children’s academic work. Thus, these students depend on an elder sibling or a close relative for supervision. Many students are forced to work without supervision and do self-study with occasional checks. Even parents who work from home or stay home all day face challenges in supervising their children. A parent of two children who are studying in the 4th and 5th grade in Lamdon School, Leh and Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV), Choglamsar said, “Since we are not educated, we face a lot of problem teaching and supervising their studies. Sometimes, they would miss homework or submission would be delayed as we are not able to use a smartphone. It took us a lot of time and effort to find someone to teach our children.”

In contrast, other parents have coped well, especially those who are educated. With two sons in primary school, a couple described how they divide time between their work and chores to supervise their children’s work. However, they admitted that their days have become rather hectic. All these factors have had an impact on the quality of education received by students during the pandemic. Many parents also voiced concern on how teachers are coping with online education. When asked about this, most teachers said it has been a challenge. Some mentioned that they spend a lot getting their students together for a class, especially when students struggle to log in or are unable to follow the teacher. 

Schools are aware of these challenges. However, there is pressure to complete the syllabus, which forces many teachers to follow up on the work sent to the students. This in turn reflects on the quality of education and learning. A principal of a school mentioned that younger students who do not have a fixed syllabus are forgetting how to read and write. This is very concerning as this may result in a prolonged delay in reading and writing skills amongst students. Furthermore, there is variability amongst teachers in terms of engagement, preparation and follow up, especially since the digital medium is relatively new for everyone.

While college students seem to be better adapted to using technology, many report that they are not able to cope with online learning and prefer offline classes. When asked about specific challenges, these students mentioned difficulty in focusing and limited time to understand, write notes and clarify doubts. Several students reported that they have started spending time on social media and video games instead of studying.

Gulzar Hussain, a student of Delhi University said, “It will take time for students to get used to the new mode of education. This mode is very different from offline classes. Many students are not taking this seriously. I had taught a student in Kargil last year and he used to be very punctual and curious. Now after studying online for a year, he no longer seems interested in studies.”

Teachers too have reported that many students are struggling with online learning. Masooma Batool, a government teacher in Kargil, said, “Last year when the lockdown was eased and the schools were allowed to open, I observed that students were clueless about their studies. It is not possible to have one-to-one interactions online.”

This was echoed by Professor at Government Degree College, Drass, Shujat Ali who added that learning must not stop despite various challenges. He said, “Initially, everyone hoped to continue offline teaching as online classes did not seem to help. In a month or two, everyone realised that we have to adapt to online learning. The teachers and students who were initially reluctant have now started taking interest in online classes and enrolments have increased. We have to accept new modes of learning and motivate our students. Online learning has gone from being a secondary resource to the primary channel for learning. There are many benefits of online learning including improved accessibility to resources and reduction of overall costs. We can improve the quality of our education by harnessing technology appropriately.”

Some students feel that the pandemic has forced them to learn new skills. One such student, Sabika Khatoon said. “Nothing can replace school! However, online teaching has forced us to learn skills to navigate the digital world and enabled us to access educational resources online.”

Digital exclusion?

As the pandemic spread in early 2020, many parents took their children back to their villages. Unfortunately, there is limited or no internet connectivity in many rural areas in Ladakh. This meant that initially many students were unable to participate in online classes. Since then, reports have emerged of students having to walk (or have parents drive them in some cases) to a location where they can get internet connectivity.

In many cases, parents faced a bigger challenge when they had more than one child but only one smartphone in the house. In other case, there have been instances where students have internet connectivity but their teacher was living in a remote village that did not.  

Prof. Shujat Ali identified these as major challenges. “In addition to internet connectivity, many families are not able to afford have the necessary gadgets. The government is the facilitator and must provide internet connectivity. Schools and colleges can help identify students who need additional support from the administration.”

This was echoed by Mehboob Ali, Coordinator, Department of Computer and Information Technology at Kargil campus of University of Ladakh. He said, “We call this the age of Information Technology. All our processes are moving online. This is advantageous for its ease and speed. However, we still do not have the required infrastructure in place. Initially, even when we had education material, we did not have a channel to deliver them. When the pandemic started, we were not prepared for online teaching. We have to strengthen our infrastructure and increase IT literacy. Recently, UGC asked all universities to complete 40% of the syllabus online. We cannot tell them this was not done because students did not have internet access.”

One of the upsides of students returning to their villages is that children are spending time outdoors and participating in agricultural practices to learn new skills. Similarly, the time spent with family members has been important too.

Support systems?

Many teachers and parents are tapping online portals for support. The Directorate of School Education, UT of Ladakh has listed links to virtual classes that students can attend. It has also developed a mobile app called DSEL Online Education. We were unfortunately not able to test this app. Similarly, the Ministry of Education, Government of India has also started various initiatives to support students. Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing (DIKSHA) is a national platform for classes from 1st to 12th. It has a number of curricula linked to QR-coded Energized Textbooks (ETBs) that can be accessed through a mobile app. Others like 2020 VidyaDaan leverage the content on DIKSHA and allow people to contribute e-learning resources.

In addition, various TV channels have been broadcasting classes for those without internet access. Such programmes are also broadcast on radio, community radio, and podcasts, including initiatives. Some DTH operators have been broadcasting channels dedicated to differently-abled students including programmes using sign language. While most people have appreciated these efforts, others complain about not being able to use them offline, various technical glitches etc.

District Institute for Education Training (DIET), Kargil has launched a YouTube channel, which includes lectures but seems to have attracted a limited viewership. Another popular YouTube channel that was started on 19 March, 2020 by Lecturer’s Forum, Kargil has 3.45k subscribers. In addition, there are some social media channels where children are receiving private lessons. Many are resorting to YouTube videos to understand concepts that are covered in a cursory manner in online classes. For example, Spaldon, a 4th Class student said that she has been struggling with Mathematics and Bodyig as the teacher is often unable to explain all the relevant concepts in their short videos. Many parents are also using paid educational applications. 

While online classes are held of video conferencing platforms, the Department of Education has also been using the television and radio. However, some parents found the latter to be unhelpful as they are barely for an hour a day, lack continuity, and have no clear schedule. One parent explained, “In the first month, they used to announce the subject and class for the following day on Ladakhi news, which was good as students did not have to be glued to the television. However, then it became confusing and there was no clarity on which lessons are going to be broadcast or for what class, with no way of accessing that information.” Some parents claim that most TV lessons have been uploaded on YouTube but not all. Others complained that teachers in the televised classes just write and solve problems without explaining the process. Furthermore, the medium of instruction has also been an issue. A parent explained that children have been requesting their teachers to teach Hindi in Ladakhi. Similarly, electricity is another issue as power supply is often unreliable with day-long power-cuts at times.

Health impacts

In addition to other issues, students and teachers are also struggling to cope with health impacts due to these changes. Many students complain that their eyes burn from constantly staring at a screen. In addition, more attention needs to be given to the psychological well-being of students, teachers and parents. There are many short videos about well-being on the DIKSHA application and there are local programmes on radio and television on mental health. However, we were not able to find any other efforts to address various health issues arising from online education and the uncertainty of the pandemic.

While students are becoming digitally aware, the absence of offline class has a serious impact on the mental health of students. This includes lack of resources, learning capabilities, and a sudden shift from rote learning to on-ground experiential learning at home. Perhaps a survey among various stakeholders will help identify various problems faced by them.

Struggle for survival

While government schools have the support of the administration, many private schools are struggling to survive. This is a serious issue as 53% of students in Ladakh are currently enrolled in a private school. A Principal of a private school spoke on the condition of anonymity, “During the lockdown in 2020, schools were shut from March to September. In this period, most schools collected fees and paid staff wages. However, some parents were unable to pay the fees and this caused problems to the school. I have also heard of some small private schools that collected fees in 2020 but did not pay their staff wages.” We cross-checked this with some other institutions and they mentioned that most operate on a no-profit no-loss basis. “So, when some parents are unable to pay the fees, we have been forced to delay the payment of wages of some staff members,” they explained.


Many villages have taken proactive measures to organise community classes for their children. Some student associations in villages like Igoo maintain a library where students can study. In June, the Hon’ble Lieutenant-Governor of Ladakh, R. K. Mathur announced INR 25 lakhs (INR 2.5 million) from the LG Fund to support Gram Panchayats to hold community classes. In addition, district administrations have permitted villages to hold community classes while following COVID-19 SOPs.

Parveen, a volunteer at a community class, said that the only development she has seen in the last year is the installation of a mobile tower by a private company. “Nobody was prepared last year. This year everyone is coming up with solutions to tackle problems such as technology, connectivity, need for supervision etc. In my experience, the students are very eager to learn and parents are often unable to provide them with guidance. The community classes have helped address some of the challenge students are facing but there is urgent need to upgrade educational and healthcare facilities in Ladakh’s villages.” Others too welcomed this step as it would help community members become more aware of the problems faced by their children and the administration and work together to find solutions and help in the overall development of the education system.

Murtaza Khalili, an early advocate of community classes and a Principal at a private school, appreciated this initiative by the government. He said, “Community classes are far better than online classes. However, there is one issue with these classes. They give priority to students of the village or the locality where the classes are being held. This excludes non-Ladakhi settlers and those living in a rented accommodation, the administration needs to look into this issue.” He added that community classes are working more smoothly in rural areas as compared to urban areas.

In an interesting development on 4 June, 2021, the UT administration launched the YounTab Scheme, which has been developed by the Department of Education with technical support from Information Technology Department. Under this scheme, they plan to distribute 12,300 tablets with pre-loaded online and offline content including textbooks, video lectures, and online class applications to government school students from Class 6 to 12.

The tablets were to be distributed in government schools across Ladakh in June and July, 2021. However, sources in the Education Department report that the tablets have not been distributed yet as there were some initial memory issues on the devices while uploading offline content. These tablets are expected to be ready by the end of July after which computer teachers from the Education Department will train one to two teachers from each government school zone. These teachers in turn will train other teachers in their zone on the use of e-resources installed on the tablets. We were not able to confirm this officially. In addition, DIET in Leh and Kargil have been conducting training workshops for teachers on digital learning but details remain sketchy.

By Dr. Rigzin Chodon and Leila Bee

Dr. Rigzin Chodon is an independent researcher.

Leila Bee is a freelance journalist based in Ladakh. She holds a master’s degree in English Literature.

Leh Police faces allegation of brutality

During the nationwide lockdown, incidents of misconduct by police personnel have been reported from across the country. Videos have surfaced of police personnel beating people with sticks and publicly humiliating them to enforce lockdown measures. More recently, there have been protests around the world against police brutality after the death of American citizen George Floyd in the hands of a local policeman in Minneapolis, USA and subsequent heavy-handed responses to peace marches.

This trend of using disproportionate physical force by the police does not seem to have spared Ladakh either. District Police, Leh of Ladakh Police has come under public scrutiny after an audio message went viral on social media. In this audio message, a man accuses police officials of hitting and demeaning him while he was working as a volunteer with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), Leh, a non-profit organisation working for animal welfare, during the lockdown to contain COVID-19.

In the recording, the SPCA volunteer has alleged that the police beat him and also accused him of kidnapping a policeman. Subsequently, SPCA, Leh wrote to Divisional Commissioner of UT Ladakh, Saugat Biswas, IAS to investigate the alleged misconduct by members of District Police, Leh against an SPCA volunteer.

The incident is said to have taken place on 21 April around noon when the SPCA volunteer was allegedly stopped by a team lead by an Additional Superintendent of Police (ASP) ranked officer [name withheld on purpose as the investigation is still underway] at Leh’s Petrol Pump Chowk. The volunteer, who is a student, was on his way to feed stray animals in the Choglamsar area.

In the audio message, the volunteer explains in Ladakhi, “I was on my way to feed stray dogs when I reached the Petrol Pump. The ASP and his team were checking cars. One of the policemen was speaking rudely with the public. Our car was also stopped and we were asked where we were going. I told them that we were SPCA volunteers and were on our way to feed stray animals. We were also asked to show the vehicle pass issued by District Magistrate, Leh, which we did.” Several media-persons in Leh district, including me, tried to get in touch with the SPCA volunteer to get his inputs but he has so far refused to speak to us.

Such voluntary activity is included in essential goods and services. District Magistrate, Leh, Sachin Kumar Vaishya, IAS had issued order no. DCL/PS/COVID-19/OO/2020/41-58 on 24 March which states “…there shall be no restrictions upon the movement of essential goods and services.”

On 23 March, 2020, Animal Welfare Board of India had issued order no. 9-16/2019-20/PCA, which said: “I would like to draw your kind attention that feed and fodder for large animals and food for companion and stray animals is an essential service and may be kept operational during lockdowns. District Administration, if need be, allot specific time during the morning and evening hours for individuals/volunteers to provide food and water for street animals and birds.”

Deskit Angmo, a member of SPCA, Leh, took to social media to highlight this incident. “One of our volunteers was mentally harassed, physically tortured and belittled in public for this, even though he had a lockdown vehicle permit to feed strays along with the other vehicle-related documents. I guess this letter needs to be well circulated among the public to make them aware of laws and rights during this vulnerable period. It’s really sad that all the hard work and respect of the 99% police fraternity is overshadowed by the 1% who misuse power and misbehave with the public. If the public is at fault, I can understand if the police tries to discipline us. However, if the public is harassed without proper reason, it’s civil society has the right to protest and make their voices heard,” she wrote.

In the letter written to the Divisional Commissioner of UT Ladakh, SPCA, Leh alleged, ‘…unacceptable behaviour” by the ASP and his team’ towards their volunteer. “We came to know about the incident on 23 April when the volunteer did not turn up for the service for three consecutive days. Upon calling him about his absence, we were told about the incident. We are writing for your kind intervention on behalf of SPCA, Leh because he was working as our volunteer at the moment of the incident,” they have written in the letter.

They have further added, “The vehicle of the volunteer namely [name and other details have been withheld on purpose as the investigation is still underway]…was stopped by ASP and his team at the Petrol Pump area on that unfortunate day despite having proper valid vehicle pass issued by the District Administration two days back under the movement of a vehicle under necessary goods (NGO) with the permission to feed stray dogs around the Leh-Choglamsar area.

Upon intervention, the following details came up:

1. The number was temporarily painted on the vehicle for display as his number plate was broken which he was unable to fix due to unavailability of such services under lockdown. He even showed the broken number plate which was inside the vehicle.

2. He was carrying a valid driving licence.

3. The photocopy of the vehicle registration certificate (RC) was presented as the original was at home.

4. The vehicle had official new vehicle permit issued by the Administration on the 19 of April with permission for three persons to carry, drive and distribute food articles to the stray dogs.

5. The volunteer was using a face mask at the moment

6. He was accompanied by another student at that moment.”

The letter also states, “The student volunteer requested them to allow him to bring the original papers quickly from his home which is in proximity to the petrol pump spot.”

According to the volunteer, the police constable informed him that his car had been seized and asked another constable to accompany him to the Housing Colony Police Post. “Since I was getting late to feed the stray animals and wanted to get out of this situation soon, I drove to my home to get the original RC so that I could show it to them. While we were coming out of my house, I was surprised to see that the ASP along with his team had already reached there. They beat me up and took me to the police station where I was beaten with a belt by five-six policemen,” alleged the volunteer.

The members of SPCA, Leh led by Deskit Angmo added that the volunteer was accused of kidnapping a policeman. “The team of officials also accused him of kidnapping their staff. Since Ladakh is a close-knit society, such behaviour by the police on the streets near his house not only harmed him physically but also caused mental anguish and publicly belittled the social service being done by the volunteer along with his family’s social position. We, the civil society as well as the whole team of SPCA, feel that such misconduct by any police official towards any social service provider in any field is unacceptable and discouraging in nature. SPCA is giving its heart and soul into avoiding problems that those hungry stray dogs can cause if not addressed during the vulnerable period. Our workforce consists of volunteers and members who give time, money and vehicles free-of-cost, the current student is one such contributor. We are saddened and worried by this misconduct and misuse of power by some police officials whose conduct erases the good services and efforts of rest of the police fraternity,” members of SPCA, Leh wrote in their letter.  

Divisional Commissioner, Ladakh, Saugat Biswas responded by writing letter bearing No. DivComL/UTL/2020/3847 to Inspector General of Police (IGP) of UT Ladakh, Satish Khandare, IPS on 25 April. In his letter, he wrote, “The bearer of this letter (Ms Deskit Angmo) has come up with a complaint of misconduct by police against SPCA volunteers. The Divisional Commissioner has heard them and is of the view that your office may examine the matter urgently. In case there has been misconduct/misbehaviour or over action on the issue, such officer who has misbehaved must be reprimanded. I am directed to request you to look into the matter and hear out the bearer of this letter.”

I was unable to speak the ASP who led the team despite multiple attempts as he remained busy with tasks related to the lockdown. Then on 18 May, 2020 the UT Ladakh administration issued an order transferring him to UT of J&K. I checked with several officials to determine if the transfer was related to the incident involving the SPCA volunteer. However, most officials claimed that it was not related to any case. A police office spoke on the condition of anonymity and explained, “The transfer was long overdue and it had nothing to do with the incident.”

I then approached others in District Police, Leh for their account of the events of 21 April, which turned out to be significantly different from the one described by SPCA, Leh in its letter and by the volunteer in the recording. A police officer—who was not involved in the case and spoke to me on the condition of anonymity—explained, “On that day, the police stopped the car of the student and asked where he was going. The ASP was also present there. The student was asked to show the RC and other documents, but they were not with him at that time. Contrary to what the student and SPCA members are alleging, it was the student who misbehaved with the police team and talked rudely to them. He was trying to control the police even though he was clearly at fault. Peeved with his conduct, the ASP ordered his team to seize the car. A constable was asked to accompany him to the Housing Colony Police Post. Instead of going to the Police Station, he went straight to his home. He had disobeyed the order of the police.”

Meanwhile, taking note of the letter from the Divisional Commissioner of UT Ladakh, IGP, Satish Khandare tweeted on 27 April, “Apropos to the posts on social media by a prominent artist of Ladakh and the voice message of a volunteer of SPCA, it is to reiterate that both the matters are in notice of the higher ups of the Department. Senior level officers are enquiring into the matter separately.”

In this regard, Commandant of Indian Reserve Police, 25th Battalion, Stanzin Nurboo, was appointed to lead a departmental enquiry into this incident. He has already called the volunteer and police personnel for questioning. SPCA member Deskit Angmo said, “We were called by Ka Stanzin Nurboo to the Housing Colony Police Post in May. The policemen who were present when the volunteer was beaten were also asked to come there. The ASP’s team comprising of a driver and guards apologised for beating the volunteer. However, they said that they had left after dropping the volunteer at the Housing Colony Police Post and do not know what happened at the Police Post after their departure. Others at the Police Post said that it was the ASP and his team who beat the volunteer. Even though the policemen were wearing masks at the time, the volunteer was able to identify one of the people who had beaten him at the Police Post. It was clear that they were trying to escape responsibility. Ka Stanzin Nurboo assured us that he would investigate the matter and inform us of its progress.” 

I also spoke with Stanzin Nurboo, who is heading the departmental enquiry, about this case. He confirmed that he had spoken with the representatives of SPCA, Leh, the volunteer and the policemen accused of beating him, including a face-to-face meeting between them. “One of the things that has emerged from the inquiry is that the SPCA volunteer had violated police orders as he did not take his car to the Housing Colony Police Post as directed by the ASP. In addition, the police have also accused him of kidnapping a policeman. On the other hand, the volunteer is alleging that he was beaten by a few policemen, which the police are denying. Therefore, I asked the volunteer to provide proof that he was beaten up by the police. The volunteer alleged that a fellow volunteer was also present in the car when the incident took place. We are going to cross-examine the statement of that person too. We cannot initiate action on the basis of an allegation alone. We have to probe deeper and find out the facts of the case. Only after I have had a look at these issues will I be able to present a report to the IGP. Unfortunately, everyone is currently busy tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.”

By Tashi Lundup

Tashi Lundup is part of the editorial team at Stawa

Image source: Wikipedia