Category Archives: The Free Press Journal

School reopening: Parents play it safe

The article was published in the edition dated November 15, 2021.

While some parents have no qualms about letting their children return to learning in the physical space, many others are wary. I spoke to a few of them to know the reasons behind their decision.

The drop in COVID-19 cases and rising vaccination figures bode well for wary parents and their children across the country. Gradually schools are reopening, with a few of them opting for a hybrid model — offline and online — for students who don’t wish to attend physical classes can log in and take virtual lessons.  

The much-awaited move marks the slow return of normal life for children. While some parents still have reservations about reopening schools and sending their children to attend classes in the physical space, most of them agreed that what the child could do sitting in a classroom can never match what the child does sitting in front of the screen at home.    

Apart from poor quality, a worried parent Shabeeh from New Delhi, who isn’t sending her children to school once it reopens on November 15, says, “My concern is that we do not know much about post-COVID complications in kids. Studies show that kids are the least affected, but I am afraid if any complication arises, and lasts long, it would be difficult to manage.”

For a few others, the hybrid model suits them best. During the lockdown, Hyderabad resident Nimesh Priyadarshi shifted base to Bhubaneshwar but didn’t want to change his daughter Navya’s school in mid-session. “She is still in the same school as she was in Hyderabad, and the online classes have made it possible to attend school from anywhere. We prefer the hybrid model for her, though the school has resumed offline classes for others as well,” he says.   

Before opening their doors and resuming teaching within the four walls of the learning space, the schools had taken ample precautions, including seeking parents’ consent. To assuage the concerns of the parents and children, the schools had ensured complete vaccination of the school staff, with regular sanitization of the entire premises, while maintaining social distancing in the classroom, encouraging hygiene among students, etc. A quick roundup of those sending their children to school versus those who don’t want to, and why.  

Online classes meant zilch learning 

Noida based Amitesh, and Priyamvada Srivastava had sent their children Aadyant and Aarya to attend classes in the physical space when the school had reopened briefly in November last year. “We had no apprehensions this time around. No doubt, online learning was convenient. Kids could attend classes while being stationed here in Noida or Patna or Kolkata, and they did. But when it came to learning, there were no takeaways for children. My son told us that offline is real learning after returning home on the first day, November 8. We were relieved to see this return to normalcy,” he says. There were three children in Aadyant’s class 7 and four in Aarya class 5 on Day 1, but slowly the strength is increasing. Online and offline classes follow different timetables and timings, and there are different teachers assigned for each. “Children are responsible and particular about COVID protocols because any miss could have severe consequences,” she adds.  

Good to see children reclaiming their space 

Patna residents Divesh and Deepa Sehara have been sending their son Milind Dev (Class 8) to school on alternate days from September 6, and every day after Dussehra break. Deepa says, “I was happy about school reopening. Children had forgotten about what life was all about before the pandemic. Their world shrank to a mere phone or a laptop. School is not just about studying; it is also about overall mental and physical growth. So it was a relief to see him back to where he rightfully belongs, the school.” Sehara duo has faith in the precaution being taken by the school, giving them peace that second home is as safe as their child’s first. 

Let children return to their school routine

Dr Nisheeth Kumar, who has been working from home since the lockdown started in March 2020, was pleased with the move to reopen schools. His twin sons, Aditya and Arnav, 7, are in Class 2. They have been going to school for about a month in Patna. “Children have been exposed to testing times for a long duration, and with the situation showing improvement, I think it made sense to let kids resume schools and attend classes in the offline mode. Overexposure to screens has taken a visible toll on children. I am glad schools have reopened, and kids are back to where they belong. My children seemed quite eager to be back to school, and my wife, Rashmi and I heartily welcomed this move,” Dr Kumar states. 

If children can go everywhere else, then why not school?

Priya and Rahul Singh from Bhopal had one nagging issue with the reopening of schools. “The only constraint for us was that children are not vaccinated yet. At the same time, we know that children have strong immunity to recover against infection compared to adults. When parents take their children to malls, markets, and other public places, why not to school?” Rahul asks. Duo’s daughter Rupal is in Class 8, and her school is running and about for all classes, from 1-12, both in online and offline modes. “People in public places can be careless with COVID norms, but not in school. Everyone has to follow them. I feel that little ones in Classes 1-5 are too young to follow norms, so the school should consider excusing them from the offline mode in this session,” Priya adds.

Caught between the devil and deep sea 

As a healthcare worker, Dr Shabana Mehnaaz in Ranchi has had close encounters with COVID in the last 20 months. “I have been extra careful all this while. Corona is not gone yet, and we can’t let our guards down. If I send my eight grader son Tipu Sultan to school, I will worry about his safety because he refuses to wear a mask, and if I choose to let him stay alone at home, I will be worried about his overexposure to screen and mindless Net surfing. Both situations are worrying as a mother,” she says. A surge of cases in Europe and elsewhere has made her jittery about sending Tipu to school, but eventually, that seems the best possible recourse to take, she feels.

The worst is over, but COVID is not gone yet

Ritesh and Aparajita Chandra from Mumbai have similar concerns for Ishi (Class 8) and Aditri (Class 1). “Reopening schools at this stage is a very debatable issue. The first thing to consider is whether health is a priority at this stage. We are still not sure whether there is any third wave coming or not. What if the children are caught in the worst phase yet to be seen of the pandemic. I have not opted for physical school for my eighth grader as I do not want to risk her health and life,” says Aparajita. The flip side, she agrees, is that the children are deprived of regular school life. Two golden years of school life got lost in this conundrum. The couple’s younger one has suffered a lot regarding the initial development of reading and writing skills. “The interaction through peers at this age is vital. Also, managing work from home and attending school duties for children is tough,” Ritesh adds.

Both propositions have pros and cons

Bhubaneshwar based Namrita and Jaspinder Chahal have two children – Mehr in Class 7 and Zaara in Class 4 – and their reasons to let them attend online classes outweigh those for attending school in physical space. “I am wary of letting them attend school. It is safe but can be risky in no time. I can’t compromise on their health. I agree that online classes aren’t as good as offline classes, but until vaccines come and are available to all children, schools reopening might be a dangerous idea,” Namrita says. Their elder daughter has classes for two hours a day, while the younger one has four to five hours a day, which proves to be harmful to her eyesight. “Schools should keep the hybrid learning mode on for those who choose to stay away from offline class,” Jaspinder adds.

The decision to return to school is tough 

Aman and Vandana Ritolia from Bengaluru have been in touch with his son Shrey’s school since it reopened for Classes 5 and above earlier this year and are looking forward to sending him to school once it resumes class in offline mode for junior school in January 2022. “We are in a fix. On the one hand, we are apprehensive because kids are not yet vaccinated. How will they transition mentally after nearly two years of “home” based learning? The other side of the argument is that online education has been more destructive to kids development – emotionally, socially, physically and mentally. I hope that the schools can compensate for the lost time. Kids are resilient, and the long period of being absent from school does not leave any long-lasting impact on the kids,” Aman says, adding how long home quarantine for a single kid family affected his child. “A confident public speaker has become shy and introverted. Working on a computer has led to a severe loss of writing skills, and there’s no outdoor physical activity. All of it is bad,” adds Vandana about her son who is a Class 3 student at a private school in Bengaluru.

Kids are responsible and will stick to norms 

Durgapur based Rajiv and Indu Dalmia have two kids — Viha in Class 9 and Vedant in Class 3, while one goes to school, the other is attending online school still. “It has been over 500 days since the schools shut due to the pandemic. Having lost a year and a half of learning with adverse effects on kids physical and mental well-being, the benefits of opening schools with precautions far outweigh the risks,” says Indu. With everything else being open — theatres, malls, restaurants, airports, etc., the huge gatherings during festivals, it is high time to consider reopening schools for lower classes too with necessary precautions and restrictions, she argues. “Children are losing touch with the basic foundation of their lives, and that’s a huge cost to pay in the long term,” says Rajiv.

United We Celebrate

My Diwali Special for The Free Press Journal in its edition is dated October 31, 2021.

Education 3.0
The article was published in The Free Press Journal in its eduition dated October 24, 2021.

A Pillar of the Post
The article was published in The Free Press Journal in the edition dated October 17, 2021.

During National Postal Week that concluded on October 16, I spoke to women working in the Mumbai Postal Region, at different levels of hierarchy, about what it means to be part of the world’s largest postal network.

On the occasion of National Mails Day on October 16, 2021, India Post, Mumbai Region, took a tech-tonic leap and launched a new mobile application, Know Your Postman. The mobile application is a brainchild of Swati Pandey, Postmaster-General (PMG) of Mumbai Region. The unique android application designed and created by Mumbai Postal Region will enable Mumbaikars to get the details of their beat postman when searched by locality, area, post office name and Pin Code; more than 86,000 localities of Mumbai city and suburb are readily available in the database. There are 89 delivery post offices in Mumbai city, around 2,000 postmen/women with mobile devices, and around 2 to 2.5 lakh accountable mails, which includes speed posts, registered posts, Aadhar cards, passports, etc. that are delivered every day.

“Know Your Postman is an initiative towards digitisation of the postal network that will enable the working population of Mumbai to directly communicate with their beat postman and facilitate delivery as per their convenience.”

Swati Pandey, Postmaster-General, Mumbai region

Earlier, the postal department was synonymous with letters, parcels, money orders, telegrams, etc. But today, India Post is much more than these, remaining relevant by adding a plethora of services under its wings. A significant part of it deals with financial inclusion vis-a-vis savings. For the unversed, the Post Office Savings Bank provides some of the best small scale savings schemes to individuals. India Post also delivers old-age pensions at customers’ doorsteps, does Aadhar enrolment and updation work in post offices, and has a formidable clientele on the Business Development wing. 

Besides these, the India Post Payment Bank instantly transfers money to any part of the country if the Aadhar card is linked with the customer’s bank account. “So, the bouquet of services that we provide in present days makes us completely relevant, and we are the leading organization in public service across the country,” says Pandey, adding how postmen and postwomen, who are the brand ambassadors of India Post, have undergone a major makeover in the present era and are matching the pace of changing times.

Being a postwoman

Postwoman Radhika Milind Parkar, 58, shares a deep bond with India Post. Parkar’s father was a postmaster, while his uncle and aunt served in the post office, so joining the postal network was the obvious choice. “I had joined as an Extra Department Stamp Vendor in 1982 at a salary of Rs 90. My first posting was at Malabar Hill Post Office. I have always felt at home in the Post Office,” she recounts.

Her salary had touched Rs 500 by the time she appeared for the Departmental Exam in 1990, cleared it and joined as a postwoman at Grant Road PO. “I was posted there till 2008, and have been at Mahim PO since then,” she says. A mother of two boys, one of whom is specially-abled, Parkar thanks her stars for bagging this job and staying put all through. She is one of the three postwomen at Mahim Bazar all-women Post Office.

The ratio of the postwoman to the postman in the country is approximately 10% to 15%, but change is round the corner. “Of late, I have seen that women are approaching this field with enthusiasm and sit for exams held by the department of post to become a postwoman, and that’s so heartening,” says Sub Postmaster Amrita Jogi of Mahim Bazar all-women Post Office.

Currently, women are manning nine post offices across Mumbai city and suburb. “Earlier, there were fewer postwomen, considering the outdoor mode of work that included door-to-door visits and long working hours. However, with time more and more women have started joining the service, and in present days the ratio has reduced,” says Pandey, Indian Postal Services officer and administrative head of 229 post offices across Mumbai city and suburb..

The face of India Post

Pandey was instrumental in launching the Smartest Postmen Campaign and Digital Identity of Postmen. Talking about the initiative, she observes how the image of the postmen/postwomen has undergone a tech-tonic shift over the years. “We visualize a postman as a lean, grey-moustached, old man delivering letters to us, but the real fact is that young, smart, tech-savvy cool gentlemen have long replaced that old, grey-moustached men with smartphones in bikes and two-wheelers delivering mails to us. Postmen and postwomen are the brand ambassadors of India Post who have undergone a major makeover in the present era. These two campaigns were initiated to change the viewpoint of people towards post offices and postmen,” she says.

The smartest postmen campaign awards the title to one postman and one postwoman from every post office in Mumbai city and suburb based on their smart approach, proper dress up and chutzpah, while the Digital Identity of Postmen is an effort to emphasise the digitalization of India Post, where you can scroll on the mobile application and get details of your beat postmen. “Both the initiatives are to change the face of postmen/postwomen before the public and make them feel better in look and smarter at work,” says the PMG.

The uniform is their prized possession. “The khaki salwar-kameez with the India Post logo is my identity. It gets me immense respect from people. I am familiar with the nook and corner of Mahim, and the people I have been serving are like my extended family members. A few of them even call me to check my well-being on the days when they don’t see me around in the area,” she says, beaming with pride talking about people in and around her service area, who are the biggest asset that she’s accumulated over the years. She starts the round at 10 am, goes door-to-door on foot, distributes mail, and trudges back to the post office by 3 pm, and calls it a day by 4 pm. “The goodwill earned by me is my actual gratuity. I will be able to live off that alone after I retire in another two years,” she adds.

Empowering women

Jogi, who had joined as Postal Assistant at Tulsiwadi PO in 1993, is today at the helm of affairs at the all-women Post Office in Mahim Bazar inaugurated on the eve of Republic Day last year. In all these years, she has seen India Post adapt to the changing times and adopt newer ways to serve the customers. “All postal business transactions are made available with proper display of services at Mahim Bazar PO. All types of saving bank services, Multipurpose Counter Machine services, India Post Payment Bank services, Common Service Centre services, Aadhar services, etc., are offered here and are provided by women staff only,” she says.

The response of the public is overwhelming, and Mahim Bazar PO sees a high footfall of women. “People appreciate our services a lot. It motivates us to work with more enthusiasm. Many customers are astonished to find that an all-women staff runs this office,” says Jogi. She attributes the smooth run to her colleagues at the PO, who leave no stone unturned, come what may. “The staff here is always on its toes. Despite facing a lot of pressure, they handle it patiently. The staff is efficient and adept at work, and that makes me so proud of all of them,” she states. 

The work that Parkar does as part of her job is the same as that for a man. “Work doesn’t differentiate between our genders, and even we don’t. We walk shoulder to shoulder and give each day our best, delivering letters and other items from door-to-door, day and night,” says the postwoman.

Rising to the occasion

During the pandemic, India Post played a vital role in delivering medicines to needy people, banking facilities, and even Aadhar services, apart from regular work. “When people were scared to step out of their homes, India Post took the initiative to provide essential items to the people, deliver PPE Kits to hospitals, etc. Also, we offered Aadhaar-related services to people as it was indispensable for COVID19 vaccination purposes,” says Jogi.

Pandey, who was instrumental in launching SOFT or Supporting Officials for Treatment during the pandemic, states, “Mumbai was the worst affected city during the first wave of COVID. Helplessly watching my team succumb to the deadly virus, depressed and agitated me. SOFT was the outcome of this emotional trauma. I formed a team of officers who would extend help from admission in hospitals to delivering medicines and groceries at the doorsteps of the COVID affected members of India Post, Mumbai Region.”

To build a proper communication chain, she coordinated with the local authorities, local hospitals, and nursing homes to make beds available immediately for the patients, 24×7. “We coordinated with the medical and grocery shops as well to readily provide service to my team members. SOFT was an immensely successful initiative that the Directorate later adopted as part of their HR policy,” adds Pandey.

Indian Postal Services Officer Swati Pandey, who happens to be the first officer of the India Post to win a National Film Award for her documentary on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Elephants Do Remember. As a career bureaucrat and administrative head of 229 post offices across Mumbai city and suburb, Pandey no doubt has a tremendously hectic work schedule, yet the “keeda” of filmmaking keeps her on her toes. “Currently, I am working on a script that may take off in the middle of the coming year,” says the filmmaker bureaucrat. She started the Heritage Walk of Mumbai GPO in 2019, and authored a book titled Dawn under the Dome on the illustrious history of the Mumbai General Post Office with one of her staff members, Orchida Mukherjee.   

World Sight Day 2021: Touch to See, Listen to Know

Mind it because older adults matter
The article was published in all editions of The Free Press Journal on World Mental Health Day on October 10, 2021.

Prachi Shevgaonkar: Appy to be a climate warrior

The article was carried on World Environmental Health Day in The Free Press Journal, Mumbai, on September 26, 2021.