100 days of lockdown at AKES, India

24 July 2020

The pandemic, Covid-19, struck the world, forcing several countries into a nationwide lockdown and shutting schools. Students and parents were left confused and anxious. Under these difficult circumstances, Aga Khan Education Service India (AKES,I) converted ‘lockdown’ into an opportunity so that the dreams and aspirations of students do not get locked-down too and education continued.

100 days of lockdown at AKES, India
Thus, began the journey of a 100 days, where challenges were identified and systematically addressed, not just to find solutions, but to innovate and transform the way AKES,I looked at things! This transformation touched on every aspect of the organization, from the teaching-learning in schools, to human resource safety and wellbeing, to professional development initiatives, to finance and operational sustainability, to creative integration and collaboration across the organization. During this time, the message consistently heard from Farhad Merchant, CEO of AKES,I, was: “Unity, collaboration and empathy, while dealing with the challenges, will make us stronger and more resilient. We are in this endeavour together and together we will endeavour to prevail!”

In many regions, Aga Khan Schools were the first to respond to the lockdown, by quickly transitioning to 'virtual learning'. Online classes were organized to provide students with an engaging, developmentally appropriate learning experience as similar as possible to the in-person programme. The schedule was broken down into online synchronous classes and asynchronous sessions that involved tasks students could do at home at their convenience. Timetables were meticulously planned, keeping in mind aspects such as appropriate screen time, availability of devices and the schedule of student’s siblings. Teachers with good exposure to technology were appointed as Technology Mentors to support their colleagues overcome the challenges of working online.

Indeed, the new 'virtual learning' systems seemed complicated and confusing in the beginning. But today, after being in lockdown for more than 100 days, AKES,I has been able to respond to the various challenges that have come its way. Academic and non-academic staff are working more effectively and collaboratively. Staff are now better able to balance their ‘work from home’ with the ‘work for home’. This period also saw increased communication between staff members who help each other remotely, connect regularly, share best practices frequently and move ahead steadily with a positive, can-do attitude.

Mamta Murjani, a teacher-coordinator at one of the Aga Khan Schools, talked about her experience working from home, “100 days of work from home was like 100 learnings; like 100 laps of a race, clearing each one, by being a winner or a learner. It has taught me survival skills, both individually and professionally.”

Teachers recognised that the students could be nervous, uneasy and stressed by the uncertainty of these unprecedented times. Hence, it was always a priority to keep the classes positive, and share messages on how to stay safe during COVID-19. To engender a happy environment, many online sessions included yoga, art, dance and other physical workshops. Activities such as cooking, making ‘fragrance bottles’ and constructing musical instruments helped strengthen the bonds between parents and children. Environment Day and Earth Day were celebrated wherein students did activities to increase awareness about protecting Mother Earth. International Yoga Day and Father’s day coincided with students engaging in yoga sessions with their dads.

Understanding the pressure on educators, AKES,I employed various initiatives to regularly engage with staff to bring a positive mindset and support their wellbeing. Regular positive messaging made staff aware of the pandemic and how to take care of their physical and mental health. The initiative, 'AKES,I Got Talent', received a tremendous response with staff showing their talent and skills, and, for many, reliving a childhood passion for the arts, décor, music, dance, culinary skills, poems and painting. In the 'Work from Home Selfie Contest', the teachers and staff showcased their approaches to remote working, whilst the leaders spoke about balancing their professional and family commitments, encouraging others to adopt these as best practices.

Outreach work in a couple of external residential schools has also continued, with support provided in the form of teaching resources, vacation packs, and curated content to enrich their distance learning program. AKESI has also been supporting other Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) agencies. Furthermore, several volunteers at the Aga Khan Preschool have made and distributed more than 5000 masks to the underprivileged in their communities.

‘Teachers are the Superheroes without Capes’ resonates very well when you truly notice all that teachers across the world have been doing since March 2020. The sentiments of one parent, Mrs. Siddique’s echo the thoughts of many others when she says, "An inspirer, an engager and an empowerer. These are a few words to describe the teachers for their unconditional support and cooperation during this difficult period.”