On a lazy Sunday morning, Abhijith is still in bed after a tiresome night shift when he is woken up by his mother.
She has her smartphone in hand and a pressing doubt. "How do you get red ink pen on WhatsApp? The other teachers use red ink to correct the papers. Show me how to do it on my phone, I need to send back the corrected answer sheets," the Lower Primary teacher insists.
Abhijith shows her where to find the pen tool and how to choose red from the colour panel. Draw a tick beside the right answers and a cross beside the wrong ones, he explains.
"I helped her install Google Meet the other day for a meeting with the DEO (District Education Officer). She had an issue with the microphone in the beginning but figured out the rest herself. She got a laptop but didn't know about accessing WhatsApp on it which could save her a lot of time," Abhijith says.
While there have been many discussions about students and how they are making the shift to online learning, stories of what teachers have had to do have remained largely behind the veil. Abhijith's mom is one among many school teachers forced to take the online tutoring plunge following the pandemic. From internet inexpertise to connectivity issues, these tutors have had to grapple with a host of issues.
Victers TV still the cornerstone
In Kerala, class-wise sessions covering the syllabus are aired through KITE - Victers TV, the state's educational channel.
The channel telecasts an episode every day and this is made available on their Youtube channel and Facebook page too. Later, the respective teachers take over and elaborate further while taking questions, on a medium of their choice.
WhatsApp - the undisputed king
"WhatsApp is the most liked medium among teachers and students alike as it is commonly used and easy to handle. There is a group for each class with the Head Mistress and class-in charge as admins where study materials are passed," Thomson Tom, who teaches at St Joseph's GHS, Paippad, says.
"Then there is a group for the entire school where general announcements are made. Unnecessary chatter and forwards are strictly restricted there. If any student leaves the group, it is the responsibility of their class teacher to know why and add them back," he adds.
YouTube - a distant runner-up
It is impossible to stay idle by blaming connectivity issues, especially for teachers of science and maths. With labs and libraries closed, many are unhappy with where things are heading.
"A hands-on, child-centric-education is what science demands. Teachers should help students to relate science with everyday experiences and things. Lab activities are therefore important but right now, we have no idea what the child is dealing with," says Rajimol Chacko of Perunna, NSS Boys High School.
Even compressed video files consume a lot of internet while downloading, forcing students to spend on data packs. So teachers like Rajimol decided to try YouTube for a change and turns out it wasn't a bad idea at all.
ALSO READ | Opinion: Why the campus is forever
"Once uploaded on YouTube, kids don't have to worry about videos getting deleted or downloading it again. The platform won't eat up all their data and they can watch it whenever they feel like," she says.
Google Meet is complicated
St Joseph's GHS Paippad's Thomson highlights how the digital divide among students affects tutors too. It restricts even willing teachers from taking e-classes to the next level, he says.
"I prepare notes based on the Victers episode and host a daily Google Meet around 8:00 PM. Hardly 20 students are in a position to attend this but still, I carry on," says the English teacher.
Lack of internet proficiency among the seniors in his profession is another hurdle, he adds.
Sorry kids, no escape from tests
Adapting e-learning doesn't mean students can avoid assignments and tests. With no face-to-face interaction happening with the kids, conducting tests regularly is the only way to assess their progress, says Thomson.
"We make sure students get ample time to prepare by sharing the date for the exam beforehand. The tests are usually for 45 minutes and they are given another 15 minutes to send the answers. We insist that the test should be taken in the presence of parents, but it is debatable how many follow it," he explains.
Answer sheets are corrected and sent back. Though the grades aren't used for any evaluations, students are asked to keep the soft copies.
Why regular school was better
Kottayam-native Arya Raj taught at an aided High School as a part of her B-Ed curriculum before the pandemic struck. Having completed her course, she is now a guest faculty and explains why she prefers a regular school hour over a virtual session.
"A classroom provides equal access to knowledge for all students. They get to interact with the teacher and share all their thoughts and concerns. Maybe this would change in the future, but it is impossible to match the classroom experience considering the current technology we have," she says.
Unlike in schools, teachers have no idea of what is going on at the other end - about who are attentive and who are not.
"Among a class of 50, 20-25 will be ready all the time, some others join later on and a handful hardly respond. We make phone calls at random to their homes but it isn't the ideal solution," Thomson says.
Poor connectivity is a major blow, even for teachers. "Many times students run out of data while in the middle of a session. We turn off the video option and resume our classes like a radio transmission when this turns particularly bad. Not even half the students have wifi at their homes," Arya laments.
The unavailability of reference materials in Malayalam is also a problem as many students are not comfortable with English. "In schools, we can explain as many times as it takes for them to understand, but no amount of audio messages will bring that sort of clarity," Rajimol says.
Many parents are not happy with children spending so much time on their phones - even for academic reasons. And when guardians come home and are in need of the device, the backlog accumulates.
These few months of "work from home" have taught the teachers a lesson. Virtual education can in no manner match the array of possibilities that face-to-face engagement between a tutor and student offers. Since modern problems require modern solutions, they have decided to adopt, improvise and overcome.
"We've decided to give them lessons like capsules. What we could cover in a single 45-minute classroom session is now shared in small three or four parts. Not ideal, but at least the kids can follow. Let's see where it takes us," an optimistic Rajimol concludes.