DOODHPATHRI: Students attend a class at their open-air school situated on top of a mountain in Doodhpathri, Indian-administered Kashmir. – AFP

DOODHPATHRI: Sitting cross-legged and hunched over her textbooks in a lush meadow surrounded by mountains and pine trees, Tasleem Bashir can hardly contain her joy at being back at school. The 14-year-old is among hundreds of students attending open-air classes in Doodhpathri, high above Srinagar in Indian-controlled Kashmir, as the coronavirus continues to cripple life in the country. “It feels so good to have school in this fresh air. At home I didn’t study much because there were many house chores to do,” Bashir said.

“After classes, I sit around with friends and we also play together before walking back home,” she told AFP. The relief is obvious for everyone involved in the classes in the clouds held at an altitude of 2,730 meters (9,000 feet). Parents and grandparents walk or carry their children up a slope to the flat patch of grass ahead of the daily classes. Children run to a glacier-fed stream to dip their feet in the cool water during breaks, while others jump in after classes for a bath before heading home.

Even before the coronavirus epidemic, schooling in restive Kashmir had been severely disrupted by a strict curfew imposed almost a year ago when New Delhi stripped the Muslim-majority region of its semi-autonomy. With India now the third-most infected nation in the world-with almost 1.5 million infections-it is not yet clear when classes will restart. Unable to afford smartphones, and with limited internet access in remote villages, many students were unable to attend online lessons. So parents turned to the education department, pleading for help.

Face masks and sanitizer
“We decided to organize classes for these children in the open air, where we observe social distancing,” local education department official Mohammad Ramzan told AFP. In this meadow, pupils from 15 villages are supplied with face masks and sanitizer before sitting in eight groups divided by age. Teachers carried whiteboards to the meadow to use during the three- to four-hour classes. “It felt wrong to receive my salary sitting at home,” said teachers Manzoor Ahmad.

“I really enjoy teaching in this enchanting atmosphere rather than inside usually cramped classrooms,” he told AFP. Shabnam, 12, who walks over a mile to the makeshift classroom, said she initially felt suffocated by wearing a face mask during lessons. “But now I feel good and enjoy it here very much,” she said. “I had thought my school was over for good and I would never meet my school friends again.”- AFP