Private tuitions and the pandemic

Sumbul Danish

Sagufta Sultana sat with a cup of tea on the table, working on her embroidery. It was Tuesday afternoon and the sun shone brightly into the room and on its meagre occupants. The room had not always been so empty.

Eight years ago, after her daughter, Sana, turned three, Sagufta started tutoring children near her home. The extra income was invaluable to their household. She even quit sewing because of her busy schedule. A small price to pay for running her house smoothly and sending her daughter to a good school.

When the pandemic hit, the tuition came to an abrupt stop. As social distancing and staying home became the norm, the parents of a few regular students wanted her to continue classes online. But there was only one smartphone at home, and it went to her daughter for online schooling.

“I wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway,” she said as she pulled the needle through the colourful patch of cloth. “I could never get the hang of that thing. It is enough that she can use it to study.”

As 2021 rolled around, students started coming back to her for classes. But even though before the pandemic her afternoons used to be packed from Monday to Saturday, now her students could be squeezed into one shift, three days a week. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she gets to sit in the afternoon making pretty embroideries. Picking her hobby back up has been bittersweet at best.

Sagufta Sultana is not the only private tutor to have been affected by the pandemic. As Times of India’s Faryal Rumi reported on June 6 2020, parents are unwilling to let teachers into their homes or send their kids to someone else.

Across India, private home tutors in small towns have lost students or have had to adjust to lower fees. At the heart of it all is the pandemic, which has threatened the lives and livelihood of people for over a year now.

In rural areas, small towns, and underdeveloped nooks and crannies of big cities, the negative effects of the periodic lockdowns are a lot more evident. The privileges thrown into relief by the pandemic has reinforced the private-government school binary.

A study published in the Sage Journals and conducted by Samta Jain, Marie Lall, and Anviti Singh on the impact of Covid-19 on education shows that government school students and teachers are decidedly more disadvantaged than their private school counterparts. The three-fold gap faced by teachers when it comes to imparting online education, namely Access Gap: the ability of teachers to invest money into accessing technology, Usage Gap: problems faced in adapting to the new technologies, and the Digital Skills Gap, have unequal distribution and consequences.

Private tutors from government and private schools have widely different experiences that the socio-economic disparities have afforded them. The amount of private school teachers trained by their workplace in conducting online classes is greater than public schools by a large margin. This difference directly translates into the efficacy and ease of tutoring after school.

Satyajeet Sahu, a 24-year-old software engineer for a small company, started tutoring kids aged between 5-10 years as a part-time job on Sundays, three years ago. After an initial couple of months, it had been smooth sailing; with his two jobs, he could live comfortably and even send some money home.

Since the pandemic hit, he turned to provide online classes. But the competition from online tutoring giants like BYJU’s has been stiff.

“More than a third of my students are now studying from learning apps. Those apps have grand advertisements and free classes, I can’t compete with that.”

India saw a boom in online tutoring apps with the onset of lockdowns, which provided convenience, flexibility, and the prospect of cheaper tuition for financially hit parents. While professional teachers could hold their own against the tide of learning apps, many part-timers and housewives who taught as a side-job got swept away.

As Business Standard reported, the pandemic helped BYJU’s reach a valuation of over 11 billion dollars. Like many other EdTech apps, it offered free classes to students from March of 2020. This free access across its entire platform gave a huge boost to BYJU’s membership. By the end of 2020, it had jumped 25 per cent and garnered over 50 million members.

“The pandemic has been rough. On top of losing students, stocking food for the lockdown ate up most of my savings. I did not get any income from my primary job for nearly six months. I barely have any kids left to teach now, and any new students only attend if I reduce the fees. But I can understand the tough choices that parents have had to make,” Sahu says.

Three of his 15 students had to drop out because of financial problems. The pandemic has brought forth parents’ single-minded focus on their kid’s education. But still, with the loss of jobs, they have had to cut corners and pull their children out of tuitions.

Illustration: Tasneem Amiruddin

Due to the financial distress so many families now find themselves in, private tutors are stuck in a sticky situation. Debiprasad Rao, a government school teacher who tutors kids after school talked about his predicament, “Earlier I barely had to ask for the fees, only a monthly reminder was enough. Now I have fewer students, and many of their parents are not as financially stable. There are students who haven’t paid the fees for months. I cannot ask them repeatedly or their parents pull them out of tuition without paying anything.”

This has become a common problem in many families as the lockdown drags on, siphoning off the savings built over years.

Sanskruti Parida is one such parent who withdrew her daughter from tuition.

“Bagmi is a very bright student,” Parida said, “Her father had a pay cut due to the pandemic, and we had no choice but to take her out of tuition. She took lessons from Byju’s till the end of April, and now her father and I teach her at home.”

The Ed-tech companies may be offering solutions, but it is limited to the privileged students who can afford smartphones and large data packs. After a whole year of unequal educational opportunities, with no end in sight, we can only imagine the long-term effects it will have on students.

Between the online learning giants, technology issues, and financially hit parents, private tutors have had a hard time recovering from the pandemic despite the brief relaxations in society. Parents continue being wary of exposing children to outsiders unnecessarily, even as schools reopened and closed.

Online education has dragged in a host of other problems, and private tutors who have little to no training in teaching online are finding it difficult to deal with. Since the students are studying from home, the teachers are subjected to an unprecedented level of scrutiny from parents who review the recorded sessions or simply drop in when the class is live, throwing them off. On the flip side, the teachers have no idea how many students are paying attention to the class as the children mostly keep their cameras off.

“The classes are very alienating and I don’t know how to cope with that. I feel like I’m speaking to a wall as I can neither see nor hear the children most of the time. Online classes require a lot of preparation and even then, I don’t think I’m good enough at it and I don’t get the satisfaction of teaching like I did before,” Anjana Agarwal, a private school teacher tutoring after school hours said. “There are a few advantages though, a couple of kids who could never speak in the class feel comfortable to ask questions now, from behind their screens. I have also gotten better at handling all the apps,” she added.

On a positive note, the demand for tutors who teach extracurricular activities like music, art, etc., has risen exponentially because of all the free time people have found on their hands. Laxmi Kanta, a music teacher for the last five years, says the lockdown has helped propel his career. Within the first month of staying home, even adults started enrolling for Guitar or Ukulele classes. “I can take many more classes now that I don’t have to travel so much. Online classes save a lot of my time even though they pose some technical hurdles,” he said.

With the new wave of Coronavirus spreading across the country, mortality rates have ratcheted up and entire families are being diagnosed with Covid. Once again, the students have started to trickle out in favour of online classes in the safety of their home.

The second wave of Covid-19 cast a shadow on the faces of Sagufta Sultana and many others like her, as she watched her students retreating once more, leaving long hours of anxiety in their wake.

But people try to adapt no matter what gets thrown at them.

The tea had gone cold by the time Sagufta finished embroidering. She held up the piece of cloth, which now had pretty flowers woven into it. “What do you think?” she smiled, “Should I start selling these?”

The author is a student of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Hyderabad. She enjoys reading and hopes to write professionally in the future. She can be reached at [email protected].

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