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  • Writer's pictureChild Rights Centre, CNLU

School-on-Wheels: An Alternative to Bridge the Covid-19 Amplified Digital Divide in Education?

By Alekhya Sattigeri* & Almanya Singh**

 

The Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, 2002, holds a landmark position in the history of our Constitutional Amendments due to changes introduced across Part-III,[1] Part-IV,[2] and Part-IVA,[3] w.r.t educational rights and duties. The most significant being the insertion of Article 21A which recognized the fundamental right to free and compulsory education to all children aged 6 to 14 years.[4]


Education is considered necessary for leading a dignified and quality life due to its inherent capability of empowering people to bring impactful changes in their lives. Moreover, from a broader perspective, it can’t be overlooked that for the holistic socio-economic growth and human resource development of a country, its population needs to be brought on an equal platform through education.


As witnessed throughout the country and the world alike, COVID-19 has brought and continues to bring things to a standstill. However, despite these unprecedented times, education couldn’t take a back seat for long. Hence, online education emerged as the only hope for ensuring the continuity of education. Although it was applauded as an evident boon of technology, as always, the needs of the poorest sections of society and more importantly those residing in remote areas were neglected. This pandemic induced transition from physical schooling to online education has highlighted and exacerbated the digital divide between children belonging to families who can't even afford a Smartphone and privileged children having access to laptops and Wi-Fi networks in their household.


An innovative, one-step solution to this problem suggested by a PIL filed by NGO, ‘Justice for All’in the Delhi HC was providing free laptops and internet to students of the EWS category.[5]Recognising that-non no provision of these facilities will not only create digital apartheid but will push back the lofty goals enshrined in the right to equality guaranteed by Article 14 and in particular the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009, the HC granted an order in petitioner’s favour. However, observing that the financial burden of any such distribution would fall upon the governments which are already stretched for resources in combating the surge of the pandemic, the Supreme Court stayed the HC order.


Hence, the impracticality of providing technological gadgets and internet connections to every underprivileged child necessitates the creation of a more viable alternative to ensure continuous access to and impartation of education. This issue was recognised by the Education Ministry in January 2021 which, in light of the negative impacts of COVID-19 on education, issued certain guidelines to prevent further loss of learning. Consequently, the Ministry hinted upon exploring the possibility of Classroom-on-Wheels or School-on-Wheels in order to bridge the digital divide between privileged and underprivileged students.


Swami Vivekananda once said,

“If the poor kid can’t come to education, education must go to him.”

As mentioned earlier, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented disadvantaged children from accessing education both physically as well as digitally. Thus, the School-on-Wheels project is a perfect embodiment of Vivekananda’s message.


The article seeks to elucidate the concept of School-on-wheels, discuss various State initiatives adopted during COVID-19 pertaining to the same, and evaluate the practicality and feasibility of conducting School-on-Wheels.


The School-on-Wheels project is the brainchild of Bina ShethLashkari, the founder of an NGO, Door Step School (DSS). School-on-Wheels is a modified bus that is remodelled and equipped with classroom supplies including computers, TV, DVD Players, and educational audio-visual learning material to serve as a mobile classroom. The objective of the School-on-Wheels project is to ensure that these mobile classrooms provide alternate educational facilities to destitute and disadvantaged children who have no access to education. Few states have adopted this concept and introduced similar initiatives to provide education to those who have been deprived due to COVID-19. Andhra Pradesh was the first state to introduce a COVID-19 Classrooms-on-Wheels project in July 2020. Under the Vidya Varadhi Scheme, the Department of School Education introduced mobile classrooms equipped with audio-visual gadgets to ensure that students living in remote areas, having no access to computers and internet connectivity receive an education. The mobile vans consist of a large digital display to enable screening of class-wise and subject-wise digital lessons prepared by experts.

While devising the Vidya Varadhi Scheme, research revealed that out of 38 lakh students in the State, 1.18 Lakh students fell in the ‘No Tech’ Category, having no access to computers, smartphones, Internet connectivity, or even TV and radio sets. Thus, the project was targeted to impart education to these disadvantaged categories. Subsequently, the scheme was launched in 13 districts, with one mobile classroom per district.


Following the footsteps of Andhra Pradesh, in April 2021, the Bruhat Bengaluru MahanagaraPalike (BBMP), Municipal Corporation of Bengaluru, proposed School-on-Wheels for destitute children. This 'Doorstep School' initiative got the green signal from the hon’ble Karnataka High Court. While expressing its approval, the Court, however, underlined the responsibility of concerned authorities to ensure that COVID-19 norms regarding maintenance of physical distancing and wearing of face masks should be scrupulously followed.


The initiative was implemented in partnership with the Karnataka State Legal Services Authority, and ten School-on-Wheels buses were launched. The buses arranged by BBMP were to accommodate 10-15 children, with two teachers and one helper. The buses are equipped with whiteboards and other requisite study materials. Further to provide incentives, the children have also been promised mid-day meals along with snacks like biscuits and chocolates. Moreover, to ensure health safety, amenities such as disposable water cans along with use and throw cups have also been provided.


While these School-on-wheels State initiatives are positive headlines in a sea of COVID-19 related dreadful and negative news, an important question that comes up is whether these projects are likely to be successful in their attempt to bridge this digital learning divide? To answer this question, we interviewed Ms. Bina ShethLashkari, who has the first-hand experience in implementing the School-on-Wheels project. Ms. Lashkari informed us that according to a study conducted by her team, less than 30-40% of children had access to digital gadgets or internet connectivity or both.


Thus, she continued DDS’s School-on-Wheels amidst the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that the inaccessibility of online education did not hamper the educational interests of these disadvantaged children. The bus was designed to provide a digital learning library. The duration of the classes spanned across 2-3 hours during which the students had access to laptops, tablets, permitting them to attend live classes on zoom/google meet. On asking her regarding the safety of School-on-Wheels during the pandemic, she responded that the implementation of the project proceeded in conformity with the COVID-19 safety norms. The number of students permitted in a single bus was limited. Additionally, DSS had issued proper Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for the students and teachers which mandated proper masking and physical distancing. She told us that the SOPs were diligently followed by everyone without any complication, and thus, School-on-Wheels has proved to be a successful project.


Similarly, in April 2021, Delhi Technological University (DTU) launched the 'Lab on Wheels' programme under the initiative 'Education Reaches You'. The programme was introduced with a synonymous objective of spreading digital literacy in general to the students living in underdeveloped areas of Delhi that lack access to technology. The bus will be equipped with computers, televisions, 3D printers, laptops, Wi-Fi enabled with 100% power backup. The programme will be implemented at the ground level by university students who will be teaching underprivileged students.


Conclusion

As rightly stated by the Karnataka High Court, “pandemic or no pandemic, education of children must go on”. While the endeavour towards providing technical devices, gadgets and internet connectivity to facilitate online education to maximum students continues, the Central and State governments must also work cooperatively to explore creative and unique alternatives such as School-on-Wheels and to devise a practical and effective action plan to ensure education to the deprived students.


Depending upon the circumstances and facilities available, States can certainly take inputs from either the standardized School-on-Wheels model or the Andhra Pradesh model and deduce a suitable one for their vicinity in order to impart education to their students in these testing times. It is believed that with proper physical distancing, face masking, and sanitization, School-on-Wheels is a practical and viable approach to impart education and conduct online classes for disadvantaged children. The School-on-Wheels programme can be conducted in multiple shifts to ensure that all students are not accommodated in the bus at a single time as that would lead to violation of physical distancing norms and other covid-19 precautions.


Furthermore, the government can enter into Private-Public Partnerships (PPP) and/or joint ventures with Technological Universities like DTU, to provide good quality digital libraries within the School-on-Wheels. Thus, under their Constitutional obligation, it is the duty of concerned governments to ensure that the wheels of the education bus go round and round, all through the town.


References

[1] INDIA CONST. art. 21A, amended by The Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, 2002. [2] INDIA CONST. art. 45A, amended by The Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, 2002. [3] INDIA CONST. art. 51A, amended by The Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, 2002. [4] INDIA CONST. art.21A, amended by The Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, 2002. [5]Justice for All v. Govt. of NCT of Delhi, W.P. (C) 3004/2020.



 

*/** 2nd Year, B.A., LL.B. students at University School of Law and Legal Studies, Guru Gobind Singh IndraPrastha University, New Delhi

 

(Disclaimer- The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Child Rights Centre.)

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