Kashmir’s open-air classes offer stunning solution to lockdown

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Indian schools are struggling to teach online as the pandemic forces them to remain silent. But this Indian-run city in Kashmir has found a new solution, reports Abid Bhatt.

Every morning, students in Doodpathri, a town in the Budgam district, pass by streams and bridges and climb the hill to the new classroom: a picturesque location with the snow-covered Himalayas as a backdrop.

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The outdoor school is a space for parents and children, after months of locking up, to slow down Covid-19 infections. The state recorded more than 19,000 cases and about 365 deaths.

"It is much better for our children to attend these schools than to get tired in homes where they often end up frustrated," says Mushtaq Ahmad, whose son is attending school outdoors.

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Employees must collaborate with locals to set up more schools, he adds.

Students walking to school on a bridge in Kashmir.

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Despite Kashmir's troubled relationship with India – and the specter of violence that haunts the valley – it is a popular tourist destination for its idyllic beauty.

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And Doodpathri itself is a well-known mountain station. But with no tourists arriving this summer, locals asked the authorities to use the region's stunning locations for different uses.

A boy reads a book during an outdoor class.

"Classes are being conducted with security measures in mind," said Mohammad Ramzan Wani, an education officer in the area, who helped set up the community school.

"Due to the unpredictable weather in the upper reaches, we also tried to pitch tents for the perfect execution of these classes".

A boy has lunch sitting on a rock by a stream.

Indian students, especially those in rural areas and under-funded public schools, have struggled to attend classes online due to uneven connectivity and a shortage of phones in a single home.

Even in private schools, the move to online classes has exposed a digital divide between students who have multiple devices – from laptops to iPads to smartphones – at home and those who don't.

So, in rural Kashmir, the option of outdoor classrooms was a welcome break.

Outdoor classes with hills dotted with trees as a backdrop.

"Most of these children belong to the Gujjar-Bakarwal community in Kashmir," says a teacher who volunteered for this community school. The Gujjar-Bakarwals are a nomadic tribe.

"Their eager participation made the whole concept fit and created a similar demand elsewhere," adds the professor.

The move has been particularly useful since the children here were out of school even before the pandemic began.

In August 2019, India's federal government revoked the region's special status, which gave it more autonomy than most other states, creating an even greater gap between Delhi and Srinagar. The move came with an unprecedented block and suspension of telephone and internet services. Although the latter have been restored to some extent, high-speed or 4G Internet is still prohibited.

Life in the Muslim majority valley has not been normal in the past year.

A group of girls play cricket during the holidays.

Officials say outdoor schools follow all protocols related to Covid-19, such as wearing masks and social detachment.

The professors say that the authorities appear regularly for inspections and ensure that everything needed for classes is available.

The only disadvantage is that they cannot protect themselves from the rain.

When the clouds burst, the children run for cover, the sounds of summer rain interrupted only by their laughter and screams.

All photographs by Abid Bhatt.

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