Covid adds to woes of students in turmoil-hit Kashmir

In September 2019, a month after the Abrogation of article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, Bashir Yatoo , reached out to children  stuck at home in the midst  of a curfew and communication blockade. Bashir, who works as transport in-charge at the Dolphin International School in Pulwama, in south Kashmir, went around with a couple of local teachers to check on the wellbeing of the children.

He handed each student a loaded pen drive, with academic and creative content curated by the school administration. Due to the internet shutdown, the school found pen drives, the only way to keep students connected with the world.

Internet, mobile and telephone connections were snapped in J&K when the Centre abrogated the erstwhile state’s special status and divided it into two UTs –– J&K and Ladakh. For the first time ever landline connections were also snapped and restored only two weeks later.

On April 9, 2020, the Supreme Court had sought a reply from the Centre and the J&K government on a plea for restoration of 4G services amidst the nationwide Covid lockdown. After 18 months of the shutdown of high-speed internet in the state, on February 5, 2021, 4G mobile internet services were also restored.

Two years later Yatoo however, still visits the students every now and then to collect assignments, as the schools in the valley have been shut since August 2019. The schools were reopened briefly for two weeks in March 2020 but shut again due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

COVID Response Watch Logo“The last two years have been very disturbing for us. The challenges began in August 2019 when the internet was snapped away from the valley and we had no connection with our children. It was then that the administration thought of sending a loaded pen drive along with an OTG cable, keeping in mind those students who only have a smartphone. The idea was to keep them busy and keep a check on their mental health”, Lopa Shah, Principal at the Dolphin International school said.

Lopa, who is working as an educationist in Kashmir for the last four years is making efforts to work on the mental health of students through art-based activities and to inculcate a sense of community among the children.

“In the initial year, there was only 2G internet working and students went through a lot of distress while being caged at home with no window to the world. In 2021 we got 4G internet, but it was cumbersome. We did an online session with facilitators, which helped them to navigate their emotions through art and make them feel less alienated”, says Lopa.

Schools in J&K were allowed to reopen only for classes 10 and 12 with a limited attendance of students and staff subject to prior screening and consent of parents by the J&K government on September 6, 2021.

Mental health issues

Even as the pandemic recedes in recent months, Kashmir sits on a precipice of mental health disintegration.

 Before the pandemic, prolonged violence and siege in the Valley over the past two decades had fueled an explosive increase in various psychiatric disorders. Major depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and somatization are quite pervasive.

Commenting on the impact of the COVID-19, the psychologists working in Kashmir bring in the context of existing turmoil in the valley and call the 2019 blockade a prelude to the stress and anxiety among youth and students.

“We have been going through conflict for decades now and there’s already a lot of turmoil but looking through the COVID-19 lens, in Kashmir a lot of this is connected to the 2019 abrogation that also included the communication blockade for months. More fear and anxiety started in 2019, and the pandemic had added a layer to it.  There have been a lot of cases of anxiety, panic attacks, OCD (with extra focus on cleanliness) and other issues since then, ” said Ufra Mir, a  psychologist and Founding Executive Director of Paigaam and the International Center for Peace-psychology.

“Children in COVID-19 had to be in online spaces. The Internet was a huge issue in Kashmir as 4G was only restored in 2021. Even after the internet was restored, the excess usage of online spaces took a toll on their mental health. For the younger generation, social media or gaming online was mainly for relaxation and entertainment purposes. But suddenly during COVID-19, they had to also use the online spaces for all their learning purposes which have been stressful”, added Ufra who works on creating more awareness about mental health through experiential workshops, amongst many other crucial issues and topics.

A 2021 study, entitled ‘Prevalence of trauma among young adults exposed to stressful events of armed conflicts in South Asia: Experiences from Kashmir’, revealed that “the prevalence of trauma was 100% in both males and females”. An overwhelming majority of people reported “feeling stressed” (97.3%), while most were also affected by “fear of search operations, crackdowns or curfews” (89.2%); “witnessing a protestor being part of it” (88.3%); “a family member, relative or friend being hit with a bullet, pellet, or any other explosive” (76.5%); and “exposure to violent media portrayals” (74.3%).

Due to consecutive shutdowns schools closing down

Besides dealing with mental health another challenge faced by the schools in Kashmir is to manage finances.

While several schools have already shut at least 300-400 schools are on the verge of financial collapse.

“Due to the successive lockdowns in the Kashmir valley since 2019, many schools find it difficult to sustain. There were huge job losses in the private sector and among the daily wager class, owing to the months-long curfew followed by the pandemic. Only 30 per cent fee has been received the schools. Almost 300-400 schools are on the brink of the shutdown”, GN Var, President of the Private Schools Association, J&K said.

In 2016, a young entrepreneur and passionate educationist Nazia Wani started a playschool inside a residential house in the Raj Bagh area of Srinagar. Four years from now she not only finds it difficult to sustain but is fearing the heavy losses.

“In 2016, the first year of our venture saw the uprising after the killing of Burhan Wani. Since then it is a challenge to run a playschool in Kashmir owing to the turmoil, 2019 and now the pandemic. We had invested around 40 lakh rupees and we have incurred losses and are unable to pay salaries to the teachers”, said Nazia.

Nazia hopes to see her dream blossoming once again, “I am reluctant to shut it down. I am paying the rent from my pocket with the hope that things will  be fine one day. Our playschool was one of its kind which taught security, manners and cleanliness to children of age 2 years to 4 years. We used to have 60-70 admissions every year, but now there are hardly any”, added Nazia.

Issues faced by students outside

Interestingly the students studying outside Kashmir and those from other states studying in Kashmir have had their own set of problems since August 2019.  Hundreds of students couldn’t return to the Valley to attend their classes while the situation of thousands of Kashmiri students studying outside was even worse.

“Last two years have been stressful for Kashmiri students studying in various parts of the country. With no internet for around 18 months, their parents were unable to send fees on time. Many were thrown out of the hostels by college administrations. Also, the students from other states studying in Kashmir are unable to attend classes since 2019”, Nasir Kheumani, National spokesperson of J &K students association said. w

Tabeenah Anjum is a journalist reporting on politics, gender, human rights, and issues impacting marginalized communities. She tweets @tabeenahanjum

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