Even though we are hundreds of miles away from our students living in Misgar and Shimshal, they have created a strong, sacred space in our hearts which motivates us to educate them through innovative means. The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health, regardless of their demographics or socio-economic status. However, vulnerable populations such as children and adolescents living in low-income households are likely to suffer the most.
While these remote valleys thankfully do not have any COVID cases, life has still come to a halt as daily transport to Hunza has paused. Isolating these valleys and it’s people. In this time, we called our students to discuss how they were feeling about recent school closures.
Not to our surprise, because of lack of routine our students were feeling confused and misplaced. Rahila, studying in grade VIII said, “We are bored. There is nothing for us to do. Please give us some work Miss.” Going to school or getting an education is an imperative part of a child or adolescent’s socialization. School closures are likely to have a huge, adverse impact on the social and emotional wellbeing of our students. According to the UN’s education body, UNESCO, more than 90% of the world’s pupils have been affected by school closures. Moreover, the president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said, “Children’s education is damaged and their mental health may suffer, family finances are affected, key workers may need to stay home to look after children and vulnerable children may suffer most.”
For our students such closures mean a lack of access to the resources they usually have through schools. School routine could have been used as a coping mechanism by our students during these uncertain times; when we spoke to them, it felt like they had lost their anchor. Hanif, another student studying in grade VIII said, “We are just working in our farms with the family. That’s all there is in life without school.”
The UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay warned that “the global scale and speed of the current educational disruption is unparalleled”. To curb the devastating impact, UNICEF is developing a video series with advice from professionals and hosting live online sessions for children, young people and parents. But how will these reach Alezah, a grade IX student who has no internet activity? When we checked in with her, she said, “I had to come back to my village because schools are closed. We don’t have mobile phones or the internet, only landlines. There is nothing to do. Do you know when schools will open?”
To overcome some of the issues that our students were facing and provide immediate relief, IEI Pakistan designed activities to keep them busy for at least thirty days. These include, writing, art, and video making for students studying from grade I to grade VIII. The writing task involves creative thinking and meditative practice – students, grade I to V, are asked to write about a day where they wake up as their favourite animal while the older students are asked to maintain a journal for 30 days with 30 dated entries to capture their everyday (mundane or exciting) experiences to help them find some sort of grounding amidst the chaos and lost routine.
Furthermore, the art activities can be both cathartic and communal – younger students are asked to draw what they perceive coronavirus to be, while the older students have been assigned the task of maintaining an ‘earth journal’ by collecting leaves,flowers and herbs from their valley and pasting those in the journal along with the local name to note what’s growing in their vicinity. Alongside earth journaling, they are also encouraged to collect local patterns of fabric that are representative of their community. This activity won’t only help them get in touch with themselves but with people around them too which would give them a greater purpose in their overall work and life.
To encourage our students’ creative, investigative, and technical skills, we gave our senior students two video making projects and asked them to choose one. The first project entails capturing the impact of Covid-19 in their valley – they can interview individuals from different age groups and backgrounds to understand how the pandemic is influencing their personal and social well being and also ways it is not. Moreover, to help our students connect with their valley and its unwavering beauty, we asked them to shoot a video of their favorite location in the area. We call our students regularly to brainstorm their ideas and are actively part of the project planning process.
Creative self-expression is likely to have a positive impact on the social and emotional wellbeing of our students especially in these trying and transformative times. With artistic expression as their anchor, our students are excited and motivated to work on these projects; upon their request, these project tasks will be considered for an inter-valley competition. Stuckey and Noble (2010) conclude that expressive writing, movement-based creative expression and visual art therapy can have a positive and monumental effect on a child’s development and overall health.
Soomro, in her latest op-ed piece discusses the many challenges to learning faced by students who are not online and questions the massive disparity in the education sector that is only going to increase due to the pandemic: “Who will take responsibility for the losses incurred by these students? Will the telecom network that has monopolised internet provision in the region be held responsible?” She also points out the grave consequences of long term disengagement from learning for students from low income households, with a 73% secondary school drop out rate long term disengagement from learning will result in an increase in this drop out rate & we must put in all efforts to create learning opportunities & essentially opportunities for learning engagement for these students to prevent this.
While we are staying connected with our students by assigning them project based tasks, we’re also working on a project in collaboration with Rising Academies to provide learning access through radio since remote areas have no internet access.
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