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Author: Durga Sahu; Kranti Nigam and Nazish Najmi
Posted on: Monday, 8th June 2020
Photo: An education volunteer interacting with a child in Barabanki district, Uttar Pradesh

How community-based education volunteers are reaching out to children from vulnerable communities In Uttar Pradesh

The COVID-19 Crisis and the Response of the School System

The COVID-19 crisis is adversely impacting the well-being of children. The impact is most acute on children belonging to the most marginalised and vulnerable sections of the society who are already facing multiple challenges in terms of job loss, ending of income, food security and in addition the health risk. Children are exposed to increased vulnerabilities and risks, including that of child labour, child marriage and even child trafficking. Apart from protection, children’s rights to nutrition, health and education, are seriously compromised by the impact of the pandemic.

The closure of schools, a necessary step to contain the spread of the virus, has not only meant an end to participation in the everyday teaching-learning processes in the classroom, it also has impacted the nutrition by the stoppage of the mid-day meal given to children at school.

The Government of Uttar Pradesh has sought to mitigate the impact on education and nutrition. It is exploring the best way to transfer the expenditure of providing mid-day meals to students, to their bank accounts in the form of direct bank transfers (DBT) and extend this across the summer holidays.

In addition, the Government undertook a multi-pronged programme to continue education despite closed schools by connecting parents to teachers, drawing parents into teaching practices, creating and making available a pool of web-based content and broadcasting educational content on radio, TV and to smartphones.

UNICEF is supporting the Department of Basic Education, Government of Uttar Pradesh in creating content for flexible, remote and home-based learning which includes assignments, reading material, content for Radio, TV and online channels. The material developed is user-friendly and can be easily transacted at homes by the parents and older siblings. The content for programs for broadcast is mapped according to grade appropriateness to ensure alignment with competencies, it also keeps in mind aspects of gender and inclusion. Thus, the learning posters include activities which help children and parents discuss and think about breaking gender stereotypical behaviour.

Reaching the Unreached

Despite these efforts, large sections of children remain beyond the reach of the education outreach processes put into place. These are out-of-school children and children of daily-wagers, low income families and migrant workers.

A network of village-level community-based “education volunteers“ stepped in to reach children of vulnerable communities, even during the time of COVID. A team of more than 5,300 volunteers were put into place through Nai Pahal, an initiative being led by UNICEF and ActionAid Association, across 20 districts of Uttar Pradesh to activate education governance systems and sensitize communities on the importance of education, besides addressing issues of child labour and child marriage in the state.

Working with the Basic Education Department, education officers at the district and block and actively engaging with the School Management Committees (SMCs), Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), community leaders, teachers and parents, the education volunteers and the Nai Pahal team facilitated the identification of more than 2,26,000 out-of-school children from 20 districts, while the whole exercise across 75 districts identified more than 3,64,000 out-of-school children.

Various studies show us that parents of out-of-school children, face multiple forms of vulnerabilities.  These parents and parents of school-going children who are daily wage workers and low-income households, have in the face of the COVID pandemic become jobless deprived of any source of income and have quickly ran out of food. Given their situation, it was very difficult for them to give their children the time and attention they need as their priority was to make both ends meet during the lockdown period. In many families, someone was stranded in other state or district, as public transport had been suspended in the light of pandemic.

Shortage of labour compelled many farmers to engage their family, including children in harvesting before the crop got damaged. As many children are first generation literates, their parents could not engage with their children regarding studies, leave alone take on the role of teachers. Stationery items were in short supply and in case low on the priority of things to acquire.  Most of the parents did not have smart phones to access the online programs and online content.  They even remained unaware of all the ramifications of the pandemic, especially the precautionary measures needed to be taken and current situation in their district and block.

The education volunteers had their own challenges to face, they and their families were equally impacted by the pandemic and they needed to cope with their own loss of livelihood and income and had to contribute to ensure the fulfilment of the needs of their own family. Their own access to communication technology was limited and they could not afford to call large number of people and speak to them for a long time on the mobile phone. Moreover, many mobile recharge shops were closed, and they did not have access to electronic payment facilities to recharge phones online.

Keeping this in mind the state level and district level coordinators of the Nai Pahal initiative, invited from amongst the team of volunteers, all who could step forward and ensure continuity of education in times of the COVID pandemic and the lockdown.  More than 2,000 education volunteers were able to take up the challenge. As they were based in the same villages as the children they are serving, they have reached out to provide regular support to the parents from vulnerable communities, especially those who are not literate and find it difficult to engage with their children on the education independently and based on the outreach efforts of the Government. The volunteers continuously spoke to parents and children motivating and encouraging them to continue with school education even during the time of COVID. As on 3rd week of May 2020 the education volunteers have reached out to 16,573 families in 2,181 villages which includes a total of 26,348 children (13,036 of whom are girls).

Education was not the only subject of the interaction. Volunteers also spoke about how families could secure food, and how they could access rations through the Public Distribution System (PDS). In co-ordination with district and state level co-ordinators the volunteers helped labourers get registered under The Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) website so that they could get Rs. 1,000 from the Uttar Pradesh Labour Department. They are also helping people get work under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) with the support of the Gram Pradhan and members of Panchayati Raj Institutions. The volunteers are also trying to provide the best possible support to the families of quarantined labourers.

Ensuring Engagement with Teaching Learning

Amidst the variety of needs the volunteers are serving in the midst of the lockdown, they are also striving hard to ensure continuity of learning of children at home. As it is difficult to convince parents to give time to their children and help them in their studies, volunteers persevere; they rigorously follow up on conversations with the parents to ensure that they necessary engagement takes place. Volunteers directly speak with children and help them with their studies, and provide any help in completing their work, especially for those children whose parents are illiterate. In some cases, volunteers living in the same neighbourhood give time to the children living in their locality to help them in their studies while following all social distancing measures. Homework is assigned to ensure that children study independently as well, as their work is checked the next day. In the early days of the interactions, children were not comfortable talking about their studies with volunteers, but over time the volunteers made them feel comfortable through friendly support.

In many cases the paucity of stationery amid lockdown was made with support from concerned individuals. Thus, in Barabanki district, the Assistant District Coordinator provided notebooks, pens, pencils, erasers and sharpeners to 24 students of Sarsana village, Ninduara Block, encouraging others to provide stationery and other study material to students. Used books of pass out children were given to other children so that they could study new lessons at home, as they the new textbooks were not available due to lockdown.

Many of the children have started studying for at least one or two hours a day. Elder siblings help them in their studies. Children are happy with the new fun-learning methods shared by the volunteers and have started practicing those methods at home with their siblings.

Some parents help their children learn counting and ask them to do basic arithmetic with the help of items available at home such as bricks, utensils, and wooden sticks. They use available fruits and vegetables to learn more about their names and typology. Parents who were not able to give as much time as they would like to their children due to agricultural work now give them learning tasks, like memorizing a poem, or multiplication tables, or stories, or spellings of some difficult words. Checking in the evening what their children have learnt verbally or seeing their notebook. Some parents read stories to their children and then ask them to pen down that story in their own word and learn it also. They encourage children to write one or two pages of text in Hindi.

In many districts, as a result of the encouragement of the volunteers, parents have stopped engaging their children in agricultural work rather they asked them to stay at home and study. Parents are more careful about taking appropriate precautions to keep themselves and their family safe from COVID-19.  They make sure that their children stay at home to reduce their chances of being infected.


Shashank Pandey, education volunteer meeting and interacting with children in Barabanki district, Uttar Pradesh


Mapping and tracking Out-of-School Children

Recognizing that the COVID pandemic could lead to dropouts and increased number of out-of-school children the volunteers have started encouraging parents and guardians to enrol their out-of-school children once the schools get reopened, and to ensure that there is no drop out. Different strategies are being adopted to ensure this.  Volunteers are continuously encouraging and motivating the parents of out-of-school children to engage them in studies, particularly those parents who live on daily wages and for whom access to education has never been a priority. Under “Lockdown Assignment” the Nai Pahal team and the more than 2,000 volunteers who took up this challenge, focused more on migrant families, as children of migrants are more likely to drop out of school, impacting their learning skills and education in the future. Volunteers interacted with migrant families to ensure that they don’t engage their children in any sort of work leading to child labour and rather enrol them for formal schooling once the school gets re-opened.

In Orange and Green Zone, which are areas marked by the administration where the incidence of COVID cases are less, as compared to the Red Zone and Containment Areas where the cases are most, the volunteers reached out to the out-of-school children near the volunteer’s residence and gave them free tuition at their home or at a central location following social distancing measures to ensure that they reach parity with other children and get admission in their age appropriate class once schools reopen.

In orange and green zone, the volunteers are also taking the support of School Management Committee members, already enrolled older children, and Panchayat members to create a social atmosphere in favour of Right to Education for every child to convince their parents that education is the only way forward for their children’s bright future.

The volunteers are practicing fun learning approach to engage never enrolled children in studies as it has been observed that the first-time learners are full of apprehensions, so there is a need to build trust and create a desire for learning through fun learning games.

The volunteers are trying to teach basic reading, writing and numeric skills to the children who have never attended school to ensure readiness for school. It is through the combination of fun-learning activities and informal education that volunteers are trying to get out-of-school children back in school.

In red zones too the volunteers are reaching out to parents of out-of-school children and encouraging and motivating them to engage their children in studies and send them to formal schooling after the lockdown eases for them.

It really is amazing to see the dedication displayed by the education volunteers, who have been encouraged by training and solidarity support to reach out to impact the lives of others in their community.  What they have accomplished shows the change that is possible when you put power in the hands of people and communities.

Voices from the field

“I have to help my parents in harvest which is why I couldn’t get time for studies. We leave home at 3:00 am and come back after 2:00 pm from our fields. I try to study in the evening but have to assist my mother in household chores as well so can’t focus properly. I will try to study for two to three hours daily once the harvesting work gets over.”

Preeti, Madawra, Lalitpur District

“We study from our old books and do the writing work in the remaining blank pages of old notebooks. Our father helps us in our studies in the evening. We play some fun-learning games also which we had learnt in our school. Now we will write stories and study for three hours daily as suggested by you.”

Chanakya, Shishupal, and Jagmohan, children from Vishnupura, Kushinagar District

“I have two children, Anjali and Aditya, I engage them in studies with the help of the videos and audios shared by the Nai Pahal team members. As suggested, now I ask them to write five to ten-line stories daily and also help them in preparing the list of questions from their chapters. I also give them different topics daily like agriculture and the environment to write few lines on them”

Awadhesh Kumar, Manikpur, Chitrakoot District

“It was quite difficult to make Rajaram understand that his children could study at home also. As both parents are illiterate, they thought that it is not possible for their children to study at home without any guidance and support. Moreover, they have to go for the harvesting work and their children also help them. But I didn’t give up and kept following up with them to make them understand the importance of education for their children and finally convinced them to let their children stay at home and study instead of helping around the farm.”

Vinod Kumar, Patehara, Mirzapur District

(Developed with inputs from Ritwik Patra, UNICEF and Khalid Chaudhry, ActionAid Association)