SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir

In the midst of looming uncertainty and a coronavirus pandemic, schools in Indian-administered Kashmir have remained closed for a year, bringing education of children in the region to a standstill.

Parents and teachers say children are not able to focus on studies after a yearlong shutdown.

“It has become really difficult to manage the education of our children since there is no school at all from the last 12 months,” high school teacher Mohammad Altaf Baktoo told Anadolu Agency.

Last year, education suffered a major blow when regional administration closed educational institutions on Aug. 4 in the run up to a decision by the Indian government to strip limited autonomy of the region.

The move was backed with a strict military and communication blockade while thousands of residents were detained under arbitrary detentions.

After a partial lifting of lockdown restrictions in November, classes resumed briefly on Feb. 24 but soon paused indefinitely due to the virus outbreak.

Infections have since gone up to 20,000 cases while more than 365 people have died in the disputed region.

Pandemic and education

The regional government in a recent order said schools will remain closed until at least Aug. 31 because of a spike in infections and deaths, but is unclear when classes would resume.

Critics say education has already been disrupted due to decades-long violence but argue that while children in other parts of the world are taking online education and guidance from teachers, Kashmiri students do not have that choice.

“Why these injustices with our children? It is almost a year now – there is no education, no school, not even virtual education,” said Irfan Manzoor, a parent.

The regional administration extended the ban on high speed internet until Aug. 19, making it more than a year when it was blocked.

“At one end they are saying that schools cannot be reopened due to coronavirus but on the other side they are continuously blocking essential high speed internet services which are must for students to take online classes,” Muheeb Mukhtar, a class-X student told Anadolu Agency.

Mohammad Younis Malik, director of school education of the Kashmir region, said whatever resources are available, officials have utilized all of them for the benefit of children.

He agreed low speed internet has been a problem but said the education department is broadcasting video lessons for class 6-12 on a regular basis, and more than 400,000 students have benefitted.

The official said the government is planning to establish a full-time community radio station that will cater to primary and secondary-level students.

“The community radio station can be easily accessed and benefit more students across the region if schools remain closed for longer periods,” said Malik.

As per government data, Jammu and Kashmir region has more than 2.5 million students with more than 10,000 schools.

Erratic education and trauma

The ongoing military clampdown, violence and civil strife has placed the region’s education sector on a backseat while taking a heavy toll on the mental health of children amid the pandemic.

Child psychologists say frequent disruptions in formal schooling, limited opportunities to socialize, and erratic schedules are leading to a rise in depression and behavioral issues among children.

Farhana Yaseen, a counsellor at the Child Guidance and Well-being Centre in Srinagar, said many children are suffering because of the extended shutdown of schools.

“Many students are suffering from anxiety as they feel they have nothing ‘left’ in their lives after remaining confined but this situation has aggravated more due to the pandemic,” said Yaseen.

Since April, 124 mental health cases have been reported at the Child and Well-being Centre while 800 children have sought mental health counselling through telephone.

“It is obvious that if we confine a child under extreme volatile environments, it is definitely going to hit them hard mentally,” according to psychiatrist Yasir Rather.

He said that schools have remained shut for a year but children are more isolated and in trauma.

“The schools act as a sponge for a child. The children with each other learn, play and have fun but when such an atmosphere is not there, it is definite to have a psychological impact on a child,” said Rather.

A New Delhi-based rights group that included human rights activists and a psychiatrist in a report released in November suggested the disruption caused by the August lockdown had a profound effect on children’s lives.

“There is no school, no routine or structure, no healthy recreation, and no sense of safety or predictability, which are essential for normal growth and emotional development,” the report said, citing local mental health professionals’ assessments that acute anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal tendencies and symptoms of post-traumatic stress were growing among children.

At the same time violence continues despite the UN urging a global cease-fire. More than 140 militants have been killed in the region this year, according to police.

At least 229 people were killed during the first six months of 2020, as per Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a human rights group operating in the region.

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