Private tutors in Kerala are slowly getting back to their feet after a tough pandemic-hit year.
They are a variegated lot. Besides the professionals who run tuition centres, it is common in Kerala for school kids to have visiting tuition teachers. Many others take classes at their residences early in the morning and after regular school hours. Retired professionals and college students depend on these classes for an additional means of income.
All of them were affected alike by the Covid-19 outbreak and the national lockdown that followed. Visiting students' houses or asking them to come home was equally impossible and many struggled to make both ends meet. The introduction of online education complicated things.
"Earlier, most students knew the basics of the lesson from school and we just needed to play the role of a sidekick to their teachers. But now, we have to take the centre stage as their communication with teachers is limited. Online education is nothing like regular classrooms and the kids are dependent on us more than ever to learn better," said Kottayam-native Suma Pillai, who takes tuitions at her home.
All this was easier said than done.
"In schools, students write notes without fail. But now, teachers are sending them photos and pdfs over WhatsApp after class and these have to be copied to notebooks. So, many students were not getting time to come for tuition after finishing their notes. We had to reschedule regularly so that online classes don't clash with tuition timings," the 25-year-old post-graduate explained.
March, June and July are usually important months for the private tuition centres. Once the academic year comes to a close after the annual exams, all pending dues are settled and admissions for the upcoming year begin. Since the national lockdown was in effect then, these payments were delayed and the suspension of Class XI admissions didn't help either.
Alappuzha-native Manikkuttan, who has been running a tuition centre for a decade, said his income has dropped to a third of what he used to make and he doesn't see things getting any better before the next academic year.
Manikkuttan's tuition centre offered classes in all subjects till mid-2019. When both his employees quit to pursue higher studies, he was left only his wife Jaya's support and the couple decided not to hire anybody but to offer classes in just their respective subjects - Maths and English.
"That decision helped us survive 2020. We would have struggled to pay if we had anybody working for us, especially between March and July when our income froze," Manikkuttan said.
In between, he got calls, but he decided to delay reopening until lockdown ended.
"Parents started calling in June asking when I will be reopening I but decided not to disobey government instructions. New students are gradually joining but it is still not like earlier times," he said.
Many tuition teachers decided to resume classes by August and September after financial woes began to choke them. But many new challenges awaited them.
They could not let students interact freely due to the pandemic. They also had a huge backlog to cover and very limited time in hand.
Suma had converted a hall in her house, which is around the size of two rooms, into her classroom. Now, she is admitting only six students at a time and teaches three batches every day -- spending two hours with each batch.
"Before the lockdown, I had more than 20 students belonging to different classes and a few of them decided not to come when I restarted the classes. Due to Covid protocols, students couldn't be allowed to sit close to one another without maintaining a distance. So, I had to split them into many small batches and this meant I had to spend more time with them leaving me with no time for other things in life. Luckily, I had zero social life due to the lockdown," Suma said.
"A tuition centre can't be as strict as a school classroom. Students expect it to be more liberal and like to spend time with one another. Young children especially won't obey if you ask them to stay away from one another as they already miss each other because the schools are shut. To avoid this headache, I decided not to call them in yet," she added.
Manikkuttan agrees and said he too has decided not to resume tuitions for students from Class VIII and below.
"Masks have been made mandatory. Social distancing is strictly practised as well. We allot one student per bench in our 900sq ft classroom and a distance of two metres is measured between each row. Hand sanitiser should be brought from homes and none can enter the class without washing hands downstairs," he explained.
Manikkuttan, who started tutoring at the age of 16, says he has never seen those in his profession suffer like this in 39 years and explained how a lot of senior teachers abandoned classes due to the risk that the pandemic poses.
Parents were confused about sending their children outside. But many are unhappy with the way school education is progressing virtually. The easy-going nature of online education has affected the way children look at online education, they say. And even though some tutors are willing to hold online classes, parents largely think this will not help.
"The kids are not serious about online classes unless there are tests. I met the mother of my daughter's best friend and we decided to let them visit a tutor on their bicycles. The teacher agreed to take an hour-long session just for the two of them and we don't feel very tensed anymore," said Sreerekha, mother of a high-school student.
While smart kids grasp online sessions, average and slow learners struggle with certain classes. Then there are the connectivity issues and technical glitches -- increasing the kids' dependency on their tuition teachers.
"If a particular ward or area gets sealed off after being a containment zone, they (the students) won't come at least for a couple of weeks. By the time we would have moved ahead with the remaining students. By the time they come back, we will have to start from the beginning," Suma lamented.
Backing her opinion Manikkuttan added, "Students lack basics now and require better tutoring. There is no substitute to investing more time though it is less pay and more work."
Adapting to survive
39-year-old Daya is a known private tutor in her locality who visits houses on her scooter to teach children. Unlike Suma and Manikkuttan, Daya was quickly back on her feet after a couple of months as she was not teaching a group but only one student at a time. She always carries a sanitiser with her and makes sure there are no other stops in between her house and destination.
"If someone at a house tests positive, I will only go there after they recover and finish the quarantine period. Containment zones are avoided. I shifted classes to porches or outside in the open to avoid entering houses. I pack food and water and stopped having tea and snacks from other houses," Daya said.
Economically backward families face problems of their own due to the pandemic and at times fail to make payments on time despite most teachers charging modest amounts. But having survived the hardships caused by the lockdown, teachers are ready to give them more time.
"I'm an old-school person. It's not just about money I made a promise to finish their portions before exams and I will. Teaching is a service as well," Manikkuttan said.
(All names have been changed on request)