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School enrolment for the new academic session would have begun on Tuesday, had there been no lockdown. The second day of the Nepali calendar marks the beginning of the new academic year in Nepal.

However, as the country enforces lockdown as a measure to contain the spread of Covid-19, it is uncertain when schools will commence their teaching-learning activities. The lockdown that started on March 22 has been extended until April 27 after cases of coronavirus increased.

Amid the uncertainty, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has formed an expert team to suggest ways to launch online instruction at academic institutions from the school to the university level. The panel led by former minister Ganesh Sah is also tasked with revisiting the academic calendar, as academic institutions are closed, and developing the modality for e-learning.

The ministry has already allocated Rs 70 million to start the preparations for online education across the country. Around seven million students from 36,000 schools and around half a million from the university level have been deprived of education due to the lockdown.

Sah said they have already prepared a broader framework to start online learning both at schools and colleges. He said they have assessed that e-learning can be introduced at the university level without delay and it can be started at select schools with immediate effect.

A report by the Nepal Telecom Authority shows that over 72 percent Nepalis have access to the internet but a majority of them depend on mobile data with just 17 percent of them having access to fixed broadband. Accessing online courses through mobile internet is expensive, which not many can afford.

“We cannot shift to online courses immediately,” Binaya Kusiyait, an education expert, told the Post. “It will take at least three to four years if we start investing in it right now.”


 
He said while it is true that the country should embrace e-learning, Nepal lacks the infrastructure to immediately jump into it. Besides the problem of internet connectivity, even teachers are not used to the technology, he said.

Currently, only 1,000 of the 29,000 public schools across the country have computers with broadband connectivity.

Private school operators also say running full-fledged online classes at this point is not possible. They say even if the students have access to online study, it will take time for them to engage in e-learning. “We can begin the trial now but starting full-fledged study now isn’t possible,” Ritu Raj Sapkota, chairperson of the National Private and Boarding Schools Association Nepal, told the Post.

He said the parents have an important role at the time of crisis to teach their children life skills. In Sapkota’s view, it won’t be too late even if the academic session begins two months later but students should continue to be engaged in learning.

“There are many things students can learn beyond the curricula. This is the right time we identify them,” Sapkota said. The government requires teaching learning to run for 220 days in one academic year. School operators say they can meet the requirement, even if the session begins in June, by reducing the festive and other vacations.

Kusiyait suggests that the government transfer the unspent development budget for the current fiscal year to the development of infrastructure for the education sector so that the country can gradually shift towards e-learning. He says the government can opt for zoning places in case the lockdown is extended based on the threat of Covid-19. And the authority should be given to each local government to resume academic activities based on their feasibility.

Sah said the present crisis has led to a realisation that online education is the future and enough investment is needed at present. “Along with the federal government, the provincial and local governments should come forward to embrace technology-based teaching-learning,” he said.

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