When seven-year-old Moham-med Zaid left home for his first day of school on Friday, after Delhi’s extended closures, he said he could not remember the friends he had in kindergarten before the pandemic struck. He only had a memory of a friend named Ayush Kumar, but he had not spoken to him for the almost two years of no school. When he returned home five hours later, he happily told his mother that he now has three friends whose names he can remember.
The last time Zaid, lovingly called Akki by his family, went to school was in March 2020; he was then a five-year-old completing KG. He continued to be enrolled in his school, Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya at Peeragarhi Village, a government school in West Delhi, but classes were replaced by remote teaching-learning.
Across Delhi, schools reopened for primary and middle school children on February 14 after an almost two-year closure, punctuated by fits and starts of unsuccessful reopening attempts in November 2021. That means that all of class I and most of class II, Zaid’s first two years of formal schooling, were away from school. Though classes had begun on Monday, Friday was the first day for Zaid, his return to school delayed by a few days by a visit to his grandmother in Northwest Delhi.
He was excited about school from the moment he woke up — even insisting on carrying his school bag himself during his walk and e-rickshaw ride to school — and eagerly participated in his morning lessons, but his day catapulted to a high when his class teacher, Kiran Vijeran, or Kiran ma’am, took them to the school’s playground for 15 minutes of play after the first two classes.
Like the other boys, he rushed to a red winding slide but hesitated once he reached the top and let other boys go ahead. It was the first time he was going to use a slide. But once he slid down, he jumped and yelled “Yippee!” and ran right back to the top.
When he flopped back on his chair after 15 minutes of frenetic play, he said, “Jhoole pe mazaa aaya… friends ban rahe hai thode thode… Now Aman is my friend. I have made one friend, I’ll make others also… All the other boys are also my friends now, but I don’t know their names. I think when I play with them, they will all tell me their names.”
Then he remembered that there was a friend whose name he knew. He asked Yash, the boy sitting in front of him, “Dost, inme se Ayush Kumar kaun hai?” He pointed to a boy sitting on the other side of the room. “Achha, woh hai mera dost!” exclaimed Zaid. But Ayush said that he did not remember him. “Arey, main hoon tera dost. Akki,” he shouted across the room. Ayush paused and looked at him, then wiggled his finger knowingly and said, “Achha, abhi yaad aaya.”
Like many of his classmates, Zaid comes from a working-class family. His father Dilshad Ali (41) is a daily wage carpenter and his mother Meena (35) does sewing work at home when work comes by. Zaid is the youngest of three siblings — his eldest sister Sayema (15) is a Class X student at a government school in Multan Nagar, and his second sister Uzma (10) is a class V student at a private school in Nangloi where she has an EWS seat.
The family of five live in a one-bedroom home in a narrow gali in Nihal Vihar. While Zaid was away from school, the scope for play had been limited. Meena said that she is not comfortable with him being outside because “the mahaul (atmosphere) here is not good”.
Dilshad said that they had tried to keep the children engaged during the lockdown. “The activities that they have in school, we can’t offer them at home. In school, they can play in the open with other kids, it’s not possible here… But we tried to keep them active to the best of our ability so that their minds wouldn’t get disturbed, through studies, ludo, carrom, and other games.”
Zaid’s first day at school was equal parts study and play, with the time at the playground followed by a session for them to tinker with Play-Doh clay. Their first two weeks at school will continue to have an emphasis on play and conversations.
“The biggest loss for children during the lockdown was felt especially by those from working-class families in a city like Delhi — there were no opportunities to play, their parents are scared of sending them to parks… the loss of their friend circle was also big problem for them… they’ve just been speaking to their parents and siblings. They don’t have the environment to share the things they can share with their friends, and that younger children share with their teachers, but they’re doing it now in school… The teacher’s role in these two weeks is to help them build their friend circle again and recreate the environment from which they had been disconnected,” said the school’s primary section in-charge Anil Jakhar.
Their first class of the day had been a ‘Happiness Class’, beginning with a mindfulness session. While other boys piped up with responses to Kiran ma’am’s question on what sounds they could hear with their eyes closed, Zaid sat quietly. After that, she told them a story about a boy who threw his things around the house after returning from school, because of which he could not find them the next day and missed school.
“Do any of you also do things like this?” she asked the class. Zaid raised his hand and explained to his class, “I take care of my school shoes, bag and clothes so that I can go to school on time,” and received a round of applause. After that he became an active participant in the class.
When the teacher dusted the board, he ran up, picked up a piece of chalk, wrote the word ‘Pussy’ on the board in cursive and ran back to his seat. She asked him what it meant. He responded, ‘Cat’. She asked him if he had a pet cat at home. He said, “No, I just wanted to show you that I can write ‘Pussycat’.
The teacher moved on to a Math class in which they were learning days of the week. She wrote down the days on the board and asked them to copy these down. While busily writing in his notebook, he told his teacher and the class, “I’m writing without looking at the board.”
The last class of the day was her going back to the basics in Hindi, teaching them to differentiate between ‘a’ and the ‘aa’ matra. With the boys tripping over each other to read the words she wrote on the board aloud, Zaid declared that he was the first to read out the sentence ‘Cycle par chadh’ leading to a small dispute in the class over who read it first.
Kiran Vijeran said that like the other boys, Zaid is considerably behind where he needs to be to start class III in a little over a month. “It was not possible for us to conduct online classes regularly because the children had issues like no data or phones available… At KG, Zaid was at the level he needed to be, where we stop with ‘ka’, ‘kha’, ‘ga’, ‘gha’. In class II, they have stories, chapters, matras. He is bright and has clearly been doing work at home but is not able to do things children should be able to do in class II, like form sentences,” she said.
She added that these children will need foundational work for six months to one year to be able to catch up.
While school was closed, Zaid’s primary engagement with teaching-learning was through weekly Hindi, Math and English worksheets sent by the school which he had to solve and send to his teacher. “All the worksheets and activities that he had done during the lockdown, I helped him do all of those,” said his 15-year-old sister Sayema.
The oldest of the siblings and a keen student, she has been helping both her siblings with most of their schoolwork while school was out. After returning from school, she takes a break, eats, naps, helps her mother around the house, and helps both her siblings. Since she is a board-year student with her term II exam due soon, she said that her window to study is from 11 pm to 2 am when everyone is asleep. “I sit by the front door with the phone torch and study then. There are no disturbances,” she said.
When Zaid returns home on Friday afternoon, he rattles off all he did in school that day to his mother, “I played on the slide… My friends are Aman, Ayush and Yash… We learnt Sunday, Monday… We got clay and I made sabse badhiya flower.” Meena made him macaroni, his favourite dish, for lunch. Right after lunch, he is ready to do his homework.
He needs to identify 20 words in his Hindi textbook with the ‘aa’ matra. But he has misunderstood the question and thinks he needs to find all the words with the ‘aa’ matra on page 20.
“Mai samjhaati hoon,” said Sayema, bending over his book to help him identify ‘saaf’, ‘hota’, ‘bimaar’ and ‘jaanwar’.