As the tribal panchayat has zero COVID-19 cases, the teachers got themselves fully vaccinated and undertook the tedious 14 km journey by foot to reach the school ahead of the reopening.

Students at Edamalakkudy Government Tribal LP School, Idukki, Kerala
Features Education Wednesday, June 02, 2021 - 14:51

A six-year-old student of the Government Tribal LP School, Edamalakkudy in Kerala’s Idukki district had to start early on the school reopening day as it takes 1.5 hours to reach his school in Societykudi from his house in Kavakkattukudy. In Edamalakkudy, Kerala’s first tribal gram panchayat, distances are often mentioned in terms of time because of the extreme difficulty in walking through the undulating forest terrain.

When the rest of the students in Kerala welcomed the new academic year virtually, several students in Edamalakkudy came to the school to attend classes following strict physical distancing norms. For the rest of the tribal students who prefer to stay indoors, the teachers will visit each ‘kudis’ (settlements) to conduct classes. This was mainly because the panchayat is yet to report a single COVID-19 case, and digital classrooms are still a distant dream here.

Edamalakkudy panchayat made headlines recently for its strict measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The remote panchayat (nearest town Munnar is 40 km away) has not reported any symptomatic case so far. Considering the zero-cases situation of the panchayat, the teachers got themselves fully vaccinated ahead of the school reopening. Along with 54-year-old headmaster Vasudevan Pillai, three teachers – Simlal DR, Sudheesh and Arjun K Anand – undertook the tedious 14 km journey by foot to reach the school ahead of the new academic year. Around 14 km enroute Edamalakkudy is rough terrain that is non-motorable during the rainy season.

Going the extra mile for students

Once they reach the hamlet, the teachers stay in a single-room house for two weeks. “There is no mobile connectivity or other options for entertainment. Fearing elephants and bisons, we lock the room and stay inside after 5 pm,” Pillai said.

Read: This Kerala tribal hamlet has had no COVID-19 cases. Ever.

Despite COVID-19 concerns, the tribal school had eight new admissions to Class 1 on Tuesday, June 1. “Existing digital classroom options – online or Victers channel – are unavailable here. If we wait for such facilities, it’ll be difficult to bring the students back to the school system. That is why we took the initiative to conduct classrooms by strictly following COVID-19 norms. Each kudis has a common facility called ‘satram’ where we will conduct similar classes for small groups,” headmaster Pillai said.

The Edamalakkudy school has classes only till Class 4 and children aged 10 or above have to travel 40 km to Munnar to study higher. Considering this difficulty, the school teachers took permission from the Education Department to conduct a bridge course for Classes 5, 6 and 7. “We started a bridge course at the end of 2018 after realising that the children will stop their education after Class 4 because of the travel involved. The school now has 106 students, including those doing bridge courses. Sixty-seven are regular students studying in Class 1 to Class 4,” Pillai said.

Lessons start with breakfast

In order to attract more students, the school and panchayat joined hands to provide a variety of breakfast options. “We normally provide a noon meal as per government norms. Later when we were coming up with initiatives to attract students, we introduced breakfast too. These kids normally have only two meals a day, mostly rice. So we started serving dishes like idly, dosa and even parotta for breakfast,” said Pillai, who added that the teachers often carry large containers of dosa batter on their heads while travelling to the school.

“If these kids don’t get equal facilities enjoyed by my children, it is our collective fault. So we try to do our best,” said Thodupuzha native Pillai, who moved to Edamalakkudy as headmaster two years ago.

Edamalakkudy has a population of 2,509 and all of them belong to the Muthuvan tribe, who speak a mix of Tamil-Malayalam dialect. The panchayat, spread over 106 square km, had around 28 tribal settlements, of which two are now defunct. Kavakkattukudi and Kandathilkudi are the farthest settlements in the panchayat. Till the last local body delimitation, Edamalakkudy was part of Munnar panchayat. It was declared the first tribal panchayat in 2010.

Ever since COVID-19 began spreading in Kerala, the tribal community gathering or Oorukoottam took the decision to isolate themselves. Those visiting nearby towns like Munnar follow quarantine norms on return. Health Department officials said that they haven’t conducted any mass testing, but no symptomatic cases have turned up during medical camps.

Taking into account the caution displayed by the community, the Forest Department has strictly banned outside entry into the panchayat. Even officials of departments such as Health, Revenue, Education and Forest are either fully vaccinated or ensure RT-PCR negative test before visiting the panchayat.

Jisha Surya is an independent journalist living in Kerala.