KURUKSHETRA, Haryana — The sounds of birds chirping force me to stop looking at my laptop screen and step outside of my house. I can see the sun rising. It’s almost 6 a.m. My sleep cycle has taken a huge hit ever since the government announced the lockdown. In my town, the Internet is only usable after midnight. The existing telecom infrastructure in India is not equipped to handle such a sudden rise in data consumption across the country, so most students start working after everybody else is asleep.
I was preparing for my history exam when I heard. The test was supposed to happen the next day, but my university suddenly asked all students to go back home. The coronavirus had been in the news, but nobody expected school to close.
A week after that, in a desperate attempt to contain COVID-19, India went into a sudden lockdown. Police took over the streets, and everything closed down. People found violating the rules were either beaten up or taken into custody, and only essential food supplies were made available. All modes of transportation were terminated on the first day and still aren’t accessible even after almost two months later.
People are stuck. Students can’t go back to school. Migrant workers can’t travel across borders to see their families. And travelers are still trying to find their way back home.
“Everything happened so quickly,” college student Vaishali Singh, who is quarantined in Chennai, almost 1,500 miles away from home, said. “I only had a day to go back home, but I was afraid that I might have already been exposed to [COVID-19]. And for the sake of my parents’ health, I decided to stay back.”
India does not have a centralized governing body for colleges, so there are no consistent guidelines for students. Each college is dealing with the pandemic in a different way. Some have completely shut down, whereas others are trying to follow a new routine.
“My institution has not issued any official timetable for online classes, nor has it decided upon a platform to conduct them, which has resulted in confusion among students as well as teachers,” Vrinda Gupta, a student at Goswami Ganeshdutta Sanatan Dharam College, said. “A couple of attempts were made to hold classes on Zoom [and] Google Duo, but it saw low attendance due to a lack of uniformity in terms of scheduling and duration. Notes are uploaded almost every other day on our online portal, but there are no regular lectures.”
These effects are also being felt by younger students attending primary and secondary schools. Even at schools that are transitioning to an online format, not all students have reliable Internet connection or access to necessary hardware like laptops and smartphones.
My mom, Gurpreet Kaur, vice principal of a government high school in the Kurukshetra district of Haryana, said that out of her 450 students, approximately 150 do not have access to the Internet, and only 40 students have a laptop.
Until those schools reopen, many students won’t have access to education. There have not yet been any official statements released, but if many primary and secondary schools decide to move to an online system, most students will be left out.
Colleges face the same problem. Institutions are struggling with the ramifications of moving to an online system when some students cannot access the Internet.
“I don’t have my laptop with me, and my Internet connection is almost unusable. I haven’t been able to attend most of my online classes, and it’s really hard to concentrate on a phone screen,” Deepti Madaan, a student at Miranda House, a college in New Delhi, said. “I’ve been struggling to keep up with my classes and tests. There’s a chance that my college might take our finals online, and if that happens, my final grade will take a huge dip.”
Even if colleges find a way to move into an online system accessible to all students, the teachers don’t seem ready. My online classes translate to sending out blurry images of textbooks or links to Internet articles.
While some colleges continue to follow their daily routine of classes, colleges such as Ramjas College in New Delhi have completely shut down. These colleges believe that the pandemic will affect the mental health of their students, so they’ve decided to relieve students of their college work, but still offer informal classes and personal sessions with teachers.
College seniors’ plans have been postponed indefinitely and there is uncertainty on how things will work out for them. Students who were planning to continue their studies abroad might have to wait a few months before joining their new schools. For instance, I was planning to attend graduate school in Toronto this fall. Due to my graduation being pushed back, I’ll have to stay in India for another year.
“I got into The London School Economics, and I’m supposed to start this September, but my finals have been postponed,” Lady Shri Ram College for Women senior Iksha Gupta said. “That means there’s a chance that I might not graduate before September. If that happens, I might have to look for a different college.”
In addition to student struggles, people are losing their jobs. Unemployment has risen from 8.7 percent to 27.1 percent in two months according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
Seniors who accepted jobs and internships through college placement departments find themselves surrounded with uncertainty, as companies may reduce agreed-upon salary packages or withdraw job offers completely.
“Placements had begun, and all of the students were interviewing for [jobs],” Chitkara University engineering student Gitansh Madaan said “But ever since the lockdown, a lot of companies have refused to hire anybody. The [companies] which are still interviewing have reduced their salary packages.”
Although students face an uncertain future, they find themselves away from the chaos of daily life. They’re surrounded by doubt and fear, but they now have time to think about themselves, a rare opportunity in the normal life of an Indian student. The Indian education system has a rigorous curriculum, which focuses on memorizing information and acing tests rather than discussion and critical thinking. India has one of the highest teenage suicide rates in the world, and the system doesn’t provide students the freedom to think for themselves at times. In that respect, the pandemic is helping.
“I chose to give myself an entire week to sleep in and not bother with any other activity at all,” New Delhi college student Eshita Kashyap said. “The lockdown has given me and my classmates time to breathe, straighten our spines and introspect. Sometimes, colleges can be extremely draining, [and] you can start morphing into an inanimate object. This time off was long overdue.”
People are stuck. Schools aren’t functional, and unemployment is rising every day. India needs to find a solution to these problems soon, or the pandemic may leave a long-lasting impact on the economy and the people who rely on it. And as much as some students have cherished the time in lockdown, they need to go back to school.
India has started to open up slowly, but educational institutions remain closed, and universities and the government have not issued any information on either final exams or graduation. While the country settles down, students can only hope.
Stepping outside of my house to look at the sunrise always feels rewarding. I live outside of the city, and the mornings here are beautiful. The warm sun rays and bright colors manage to make me feel good about an entire night’s work. In these testing times, we’re making the best of what we have. And even though the future is uncertain, we’re looking forward to a new day.
Hersh is a college journalism student from the state of Haryana in India. He acted as a translator, cultural guide and reporting partner for the 2020 Textura India international storytelling project. You can find more of his work here.
Illustration by Maddie Harms