School education has been massively impacted amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Punjab. After a prolonged break, the state government had allowed educational institutions to reopen in January. However, in the wake of an alarming rise in coronavirus cases, the state has decided to shut the institutions till March 31.
The school authorities have been facing a number of challenges including enrolment, teacher-student interaction, training teachers to conduct classes digitally as well as unavailability of smartphones for accessing online sessions. This has severely crippled the learning outcomes of the children. Although the Capt Amarinder Singh-led government has introduced several initiatives to improve the quality of education at government schools, its private counterpart is comparatively better in terms of infrastructure, facilities available and governance.
Taking a significant step towards solving this issue and bring the state-run schools at par with the private ones, Sanjhi Sikhiya Foundation, a non-governmental organisation, has introduced a leadership program to train enthusiastic individuals and build necessary competencies to place them in the educational structure that would facilitate positive systemic change in Punjab. The program is being conducted in collaboration with the state's education department.
"People who do not live in Punjab or have never visited the state have a certain perception about the state, whether influenced by media, music industry of films. Punjab is portrayed as a prosperous society; the golden image of the state is historic now. Economically the state is crashing, unemployment is at an all-time high which has accelerated the rate of drug abuse among the youth. The agricultural aspect is troubled as well. The youngsters are doubtful of their future if they decide to stay here," Simranpreet Singh Oberoi, Co-Founder, Sanjhi Sikhiya Foundation told The Logical Indian.
"To provide a long-term solution to these problems, it was important to address the concerns at the learning stages for both the youngsters who are directionless and the children who suffer due to procedural failures. We decided to have a structured youth leadership program that would identify the right individuals from across the country who would help us build a sustainable society in Punjab," he added.
"A two-year intensive programme called the Punjab Youth Leaders Program was prepared to enable them to learn skills by allowing them to work in ground zero i.e. in the schooling system. The selected candidates get the opportunity to be a part of Cohort III as a 'Young Leader' and would work closely with the district and block officials of the Punjab Education Department.
The program is currently operational in two districts—Patiala and Fatehgarh Sahib. As many as 20 young leaders are overseeing 1400 schools consisting of 97,000 children. They act as facilitators ensuring the smooth functioning of the mechanism, keep a check that policies are followed, and engage with the community in the villages to understand ground realities and work on effective solutions."
The candidates are paid a stipend while working with schools and government authorities with an aim to make the primary schools the most important institution of the village.
Speaking on the challenges, Simranpreet said that due to the pandemic the course had to be modified and restructured given the uncertainty. He also said, "Systemic changes are slow processes and hence candidates are being taught to handle issues with patience. Maintaining long-term vision with short-term changes and keeping the candidates motivated at it, is a task."