Students want to go back to school 

Yangchen C Rinzin

At 7am Tenzin Wangchuk after a quick breakfast helps his aunt in the kitchen garden. Work done, he returns to begin his study. With the notebooks and his screen cracked Samsung mobile, he sits down to study using the WeChat application.

Scrolling through the messages, he opens the latest video message he has received and smiles. Holding a pencil, he quickly opens the notebook before opening the video and watches every sign a man in the video makes.

Tenzin Wangchuk, who is deaf, is ready for his online class. He is a class V student of Wangsel Institute for the Deaf in Paro.

It has become his routine after the institute was closed since March 6 following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Like Tenzin, other deaf students have been coping with online education. To keep students engaged, the institute also adopted online education guided by education ministry’s Education in Emergency (EIE).

The video message is from his teacher explaining about the lesson of the day. Taking notes, Tenzin shows a picture consisting of different things (explained through his sign language teacher) and says today’s homework is to sort between man-made and natural made items.

He patiently jots down the answers in the notebook, frequently glancing at the mobile. He replays the clip when he does not understand.

“Online education is difficult to understand, so I ask help from my uncle, or we friend help each other by texting each other and copies the answer,” Tenzin Wangchuk said. “We cannot understand because we don’t have a teacher to ask in person while we can do that in school. I feel limited with words, and learning is not effective.”

Given that teaching deaf students is only through sign language, teachers have to make a video of themselves and send it to the students with subtitle. They use mediums like WeChat or Google Classroom.

However, teaching and learning online has become a mammoth task because of the language barrier. Students find it challenging to study with new words, which they have not yet learned, challenging to understand the lesson and students cannot call the teacher to clear their doubt immediately.

Video calling or Skyping is the only resort to clear their doubts. But the data charges and without smartphones, students find it expensive. Tenzin said he spends at least Nu 250 for internet a day. The video consumes internet more if the clip is lengthy.

“I ask for data money from my relatives, as my parents are poor. Sometimes I hesitate to ask and miss the class when I run out of data,” Tenzin said. “I try to use WeChat as much as possible otherwise, Google class is very expensive and consumes internet fast.”

Tenzin also managed to work at one of the construction sites for a week to recharge his internet data.

With schools closed and having to deal with the community or neighbours that do not know sign language, Tenzin said they miss school and wish the government would reopen the school soon.

“It’s boring and lonely. We try to meet whenever we can,” he said. “At least, we have friends and teachers in schools we can communicate with and who understand us.”

Tenzin said they would instead prefer teachers to give them homework so that they stay engaged.

The students not only face challenges to communicate with the community, but also with their parents who are not used to sign languages.

Some of the students complained of not getting students’ data package for eLearning despite registering their number. With school reopening uncertain, many students have put up with their relatives in Thimphu or Paro instead of returning to their villages.

Students who opt for a vocational class in the school are also missing the classes, as it is not easy to teach online.

Institute’s principal, Dechen Tshering said that since deaf students cannot follow lessons taught through BBS, as the mode of delivery for deaf students is through Bhutanese sign language, the school has come up with an adapted and modified thematic curriculum.

Dechen Tshering said it is based on EIE taught with the help of parents at home and a timetable.

“With the help of Royal Education Council teachers were trained to use Google classroom. We prioritised the topics to be taught since we cannot complete the prescribed syllabi.”

Dechen Tshering said that the institute also managed to procure mobile phones for students who could not afford one. “We try to post short sign videos as much as possible to teach.” Another teacher, Chencho Dem said that since schools were closed suddenly, they did not have time to orient students on eLearning. “They frequently ensure teachers to go through their homework and demands us to grade them.”

She said deaf students require contact teaching and eLearning, and this has become difficult with high data charges for the students, as well as for teachers.

“However, the students are coping up with us and this closure.”

Meanwhile, Tenzin, who wants to become a sign language teacher, checks out social media to learn about the current situation.

“I know we have to wash our hands, avoid crowds, maintain physical distance and sneeze into our elbows.”