Over the last two months, online classes have been in full swing for school students across the state, as the education system seeks to move forward amidst a pandemic. But in this effort to forge ahead while avoiding the coronavirus, Tamil Nadu has seen several students left behind. While some children have dropped out in frustration, at least two others who lacked the necessary finances, emotional support and counselling, have taken their own lives.
Amongst them was 17-year-old Vikrapandi, a resident of Theni district who died by suicide on September 2. The class 11 students had returned from his school in Trichy during the lockdown and was struggling to cope with online classes. He reportedly even told his father that he couldn't comprehend the courses being conducted. But before anyone could intervene, he took his own life, fearing that he would be unable to fulfil his parents' dreams regarding his education.
A week before that in Dindigul district, a class 12 student took her own life after her parents could not buy her a cell phone to attend classes on.
"This is a prophecy we wish had not come true," says educationist Prince Gajendra Babu, who had predicted extreme fallouts after the decision to begin online classes in July. "Educationists and activists have pointed out from the very beginning that there is no equality in resources. First there is no additional smart phone in every house and even if there is, there is the question of whether these houses have 24x7 electricity and internet supply. The government is challenging families and students who cannot handle these extra hurdles. This inequality will lead to frustration and a sense of helplessness," he points out.
But even in houses where resources exist, argues the educationalist, understanding of subject matter remains questionable.
"Even if the child is from an urban and educated family, the process of learning is highly reduced via online teaching," says the educationist. "Children require peer-to-peer interaction, emotional support from children their age and the interaction which involves critical reasoning and questioning for learning to occur. Noone can keep track at this point, of how much attention is being paid by both the teacher and student to doubts that arise and to the subject respectively," he adds.
But some experts linked to the field of education point out that remote teaching gets progressively worse, when it moves from computer screens to television screens.
"At least private schools are handling classes online and there is scope for teachers to handle doubts while the session is underway. Imagine the situation for government students, they have to follow recorded classes online. There is no accountability regarding whether students are even present for the session," says KR Nandakumar, General Secretary, Tamil Nadu Nursery Primary Matriculation and CBSE (private) Schools Association . "When you consider that, online classes at least offer some kind of support in terms of interaction for the students. Yes there are these two cases where students have died by suicide, but majority of the students are coping. And the Centre has now proposed partial reopening of schools for older students from September 21. So the situation could get better soon," he adds.
Despite the Centre's guidelines however, the Tamil Nadu government has expressed reluctance in reopening educational institutes. Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami has clearly stated that schools can only reopen when conditions are safe and that the spread of COVID-19 in the state is yet to reduce. He pointed out that more care will have to be taken to ensure children don't become carriers of the virus and that medical experts have advised against allowing educational institutes to open.
"If the government is clear about keeping schools closed, they need to improve measures to help the emotional and mental health of students in addition to conducting classes for them," says Chennai-based psychiatrist Dr Jayanthini. "There are multiple challenges that students face in online learning - resources, internet connectivity, privacy while attending these classes, understanding of classes and the environment in their houses. For every student each of these factors will differ. And to expect that they can all function at the same level when the conditions are unequal is not correct," she adds.
The psychiatrist points out that this creates additional mental stress for young students who do not have the emotional quotient to deal with these newly introduced factors.
"Even if one of these issues arise students become irritable, anxious, depressed and feel like they are falling short or failing. There is anger which develops towards themselves and to others. When this turns into a disruptive energy, it leads to extreme situations and decisions," she explains.
The psychiatrist explains that there has been an increase in physical and emotional violence during the lockdown period which affects children deeply. School, which could work as an escape from the situation at home, has also been cut off. Suicide, she explains, is already on the rise amongst youth across the world.
"And now there is no peer group interaction to express these feelings and to help them process it. And if parents are either not approachable or unable to understand the child's situation it worsens the situation.The lack of socialisation adds to the already existing pressure and they feel jailed in their homes," she explains, based on her experiences with children who are struggling to adapt to the new normal.
So what is the solution?
The Tamil Nadu government, which has acknowledged the additional stress, has announced a week long holiday from September 21 to 25 for students from online classes and telecast of video lessons.
"A vacation for students will help them to refresh," Education Minister K Sengottaiyan told the media.
But Dr Jayanthini points out that this respite will not suffice.
"When the situation is unequal, we need to correct that systemically," she says. "One measure that students seem to be on board is roping the community in. You bring an educated person in the community to teach students on a regular basis, clarify doubts and conduct classes in open spaces. Parents can help connect children to people who can help students, if they are unable to by themselves. The government has started counselling centres already to help students' mental health. So this measure must be effectively used to keep track of children," she adds.
The psychiatrist also suggests peer-to-peer private interaction to help students understand that they are all on the same boat.
"Students have to understand that there is no major loss because of a few months of confusion. The confidence that they can manage should be given by institutes and parents," she explains.
Educationist Prince Gajendra Babu too reiterates on the need to include the community to help students.
"Teachers should be alloted public and open spaces where batches of students could be brought and taught with necessary physical distancing. This will be slow but effective. Both educators and students will be more confident in such a scenario," he explains. "Another solution is to announce a zero year, where this academic year is cancelled and students start afresh next year, when the pandemic is under control. There is an unnecessary race to the finish, that will only affect the students' mental health. How does it matter if you finish school when you are 18 or 17?" he asks.
But such a move, points out Nandhakumar, could also lead to further problems.
"The dropout rates could rise and parents will send children to work. Or girls may get married off if there is a gap year. We need to keep in mind the socio economic situation before taking a call," he says. "Currently online classes are underway and any new system will have its challenges. We need to remember this is temporary and help students through the process."
If you are aware of anyone facing mental health issues or feeling suicidal, please provide help. Here are some helpline numbers of suicide-prevention organisations that can offer emotional suppport to individuals and families.
State health department's suicide helpline: 104
Sneha Suicide Prevention Centre - 044-24640050 (listed as the sole suicide prevention helpline in Tamil Nadu)
Life Suicide Prevention: 78930 78930
Roshni: 9166202000, 9127848584
Sahai (24-hour): 080 65000111, 080 65000222
Maithri: 0484 2540530
Chaithram: 0484 2361161
Both are 24-hour helpline numbers.
State government's suicide prevention (tollfree): 104
Roshni: 040 66202000, 6620200
Aasara offers support to inidviduals and families during an emotional crisis, for those dealing with mental health issues and suicidal ideation, and to those undergoing trauma after the suicide of a loved one.
24x7 Helpline: 9820466726
Click here for working helplines across India.