St Mary's Cathedral Higher Secondary School in Kohima Credit: EastMojo Image

Kohima: As teachers, students, and schools across the world struggled with the shutting of classrooms after an onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and impending lockdowns, schools in the remote regions of Northeast India struggled a lot more with infrastructure and connectivity issues during the past year.

Then, in the thick of the pandemic itself, the Indian government announced its first educational reforms in 34 years, with the implementation of the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020. As reported by EastMojo earlier, while educationists and institutions across the nation welcomed the new policy, they are still unclear about the process of implementation.

A school in Nagaland, however, started preparing itself in line with the new policy three years ago and was ready to face the challenges of online teaching as soon as the pandemic forced the Indian government to announce a nationwide lockdown in March 2020.

Despite the various challenges, St Mary’s Cathedral Higher Secondary School in Kohima has put emphasis on skill-oriented learning for their students, from robotics and computer lessons to moral education, as well as active engagement with the parents since 2018.

A digital enthusiast himself, Fr Joyson, the principal, says that their missionary school had already shifted from classrooms to homerooms much before the pandemic changed the face of education. Their students were required to write notes from home and submit them through the school’s mobile application.

Besides the teachers, parents were also trained to use the school’s App. “We moved from blackboards to digital boards, and the teachers were prepared,” he said. With an emphasis on digitisation, which witnessed a shift to digital boards and use of laptops by the teachers, he said the school had already gone paperless in many ways.

So, when schools had to be shut down and replaced by online learning, when thousands of students across the northeast region couldn’t attend classes anymore for lack of infrastructure, this Kohima school set an example for the rest of the region to follow.

“The online classes have been very successful amid the closing of the school due to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. The live online classes, which are often attended by huge numbers of students, are also recorded and uploaded to the school App for students who fail to attend the classes due to the network issues,” Fr Joyson told EastMojo.

Also Read: Why teenage pregnancy in Nagaland demands government’s attention

Principal Director of School Education, Shanavas C, lauded the school’s digitisation efforts. “I visited the school before the COVID-19 pandemic and they were having online classes and even had the school mobile application. So, it was pretty easy for them to cope up with online learning during the lockdown. They went ahead of time,” he told EastMojo.

According to Khumkimong John, a teacher at the school, a fast-changing world and the COVID-19 pandemic have made digitisation of various sectors, including education, a necessity. It’s good that the new policy lays emphasis on digitisation, he says, “but poor network connectivity in the entire Northeast region, especially Nagaland, is a cause of major concern.”

“There is a need to go step by step, like the installation of proper network in almost every corner of the state, basic skill training in both hardware and software development, and so on. If not, then it may further create a digital divide in the society,” John said.

While the school is headed in the right direction in terms of digitisation, he said, there is no “proper foundation” for it. Besides, there is a fear that the interest in digitising the school may be “unstable” if the school principal keeps getting transferred.

“Functioning of the school may also depend on the interest of those assigned to head it. For mission schools, heads of the schools are transferred after a fixed tenure.”

Teachers at the school preparing for the online classes

There is also the problem of a social divide amongst students that’s been created and widened within the online classroom.

“In a way, it divided the students into ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. During the online classes, we noticed that a lot of students could not attend lessons due to inaccessibility of technology like a mobile phone. There were also consistent issues with bad internet connectivity as well,” John told EastMojo.

As a mission school, there are many students who belong to the economically weaker section and have uneducated parents.

“Ours is a mission school and the aim is to provide the best possible knowledge to students within the limited resources. Parents send their children to school with the hope of getting fee concession while expecting the best education. So, it becomes difficult for parents to afford the digital fees,” John said.

With the shift to digital education, the school’s academic record has also gone down over the years. According to John, the High School Leaving Certificate (HSLC) and Higher Secondary School Leaving Certificate (HSSLC) has recorded a decrease in pass percentage over the last two years, which used to be 100% earlier.

“Students concentrating more on the digitisation aspect has likely had an adverse impact on their academics,” he said.

When COVID-19 struck and the school had to be shut down in March last year, Fr Joyson says the school waived off fees for all students.

“The school witnessed a loss of around Rs 50 lakh last year. But we waived off the school fees for three months for all students from kindergarten to higher secondary — irrespective of the economic background of the students. During the nationwide lockdown, we also started renovating the existing infrastructure of the school, which is 28-years-old.”

Challenges for implementing NEP in Nagaland

According to Fr Joyson, there is a lack of sufficiently trained teachers in Nagaland. One challenge the schools will likely face is the recruitment of teachers, most of who apply for teaching jobs immediately after graduating from college and “are not really in tune with the education system or even classroom management.” One big problem that schools in the state are likely to face is that school management, particularly in private schools, “may not be able to pay sufficient salaries and keep trained teachers as regular staff.”

The School’s digital room cum library

As reported by EastMojo earlier, Nagaland has an excess of about 11,000 teachers in government schools even as enrolment of students in these schools continues to decline over the years. With about 1,69,548 students in the state’s government schools, the state has more than 20,000 teachers (including SSA & RMSA) as government-employed teachers.

With funds from the Centre that are disbursed to support the education of students in a government school, Fr Joyson suggested that students may be paid the amount and be at liberty to study at a school of their choice.

“The students have the right to choose which school they want. Instead of paying the teachers, pay the students,” he added. While teachers are also required to be trained, he said that there will also be a need to support and empower the teachers with the required tools. He concluded that the implementation of NEP in the state, especially for the government schools, will take time in comparison to private schools as the education system is not prepared.

Emphasis on teachers’ training

Ever since the central government made it mandatory for every teacher to be trained, the school was used as a centre for the Diploma in Elementary Education (D. EI. Ed) training and also allowed other private schools to have training centre on their premises.

“That is how every teacher in my school was trained,” Fr Joyson said. The teachers have training sessions every second and fourth Saturdays of the month. “The training for teachers never stops. It is important for the teachers in our school to take online classes and utilize the digital boards,” he added.

So, much before the pandemic shut down schools and pushed teachers to suddenly go digital over the world, the teachers at St Mary’s were already trained and adapted to the digitised necessity. They have also been trained in adapting digitisation to deliver lessons to the students. He said that teachers should be innovative and help students learn and become productive in society by enabling skill-oriented learning. According to him, it is also significant for teachers to have contentment for the job they do. “To encourage the teachers in our school, performance-linked incentives are granted to encourage them to perform with contentment,” he said.

St Mary’s Cathedral Higher Secondary School in Kohima

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