Connect the unconnected: education gap in conflict zones

30 October 2020|Regional Communications Officer

Student and teachers at HtoDoLayKho, Kayah State, Myanmar.

When the COVID-19 lockdown has kept students out of the classroom, many schools adopted online learning to ensure the continuity of education during school closures. But at a time when digitally-based distance learning is used in the vast majority of countries, have you ever wondered how learning would be without computer or internet access? 

“We started from scratch. We had to teach without textbooks, no pictures, no other materials for students. The lessons were from our memory, teaching from what we know. Parents had to choose which one of their kids would be sent to school, and the rest had to drop out” Rang Aung*, a 26-year-old headteacher in HtoDoLayKho village, recalled the past during our conversation.   

Rang himself is also an internally displaced person (IDP). He escaped the conflict to a temporary shelter in Thailand where he had attended camp-based education for 8 years and later graduated higher education from Ban Mai Nai Soi-Community Learning Center (BNSCLC). He returned home as a volunteer teacher in HtoDoLayKho. Even though he expected teaching would be difficult without specific skills, he was unaware of other hardships. “Study in the camp was easier with the internet. We can search for whatever for lessons. It’s easier to find additional readings or materials for free. Though I am aware of internet obsession, it is somehow very useful for us…but we don’t have that opportunity here.” As additional readings are beyond their reach, teachers can give only basic exercises to students, such as fill in the blanks, and right or wrong exercise.   

Rang could not imagine how schooling would be without JRS’ assistance amid COVID-19 restrictions as regular teaching was already difficult for them even before the pandemic. “If we (teachers) want to download pictures, videos, or print lessons for class, we need to go to Mawchi town (2 hours walk in the forest) and buy credit for the internet. We stay there to prepare the materials before coming back to the village. It’s very difficult.”   

Getting COVID-19 information and communication among fellow teachers in other villages could be a week delayed. “We write letters to communicate with each other. Some villages are near, some are far. The nearest one could reply within a day, but it would take 4-5 days for teachers in other villages to answer.” It’s even harder during the lockdown when villagers are not allowed to commutethey have to rely on health mobile clinic groups to pass on these letters, and the updates are only announced by local authorities.    

He is very thankful to JRS for all learning materials, training, and COVID-19 protective assistance that have alleviated all the hardships, and sustained education for children. He also shared how JRS helped teachers to stay committed to the mission by empowering their roles in the community. “Through coaching and monitoring that happens twice a year, JRS came to my village and recognized our work. Mobile Education Assistants (MEAs) educated and motivated parents to see the importance of education. Parents became more active in their kids’ education.”   

As a headteacher working in conflict zones under the non-governmental controlled area, Rang understands the socio-political complexity in Myanmar very well. Even though infrastructure, such as road, electricity, phone connection, and the internet, is essential and could develop his hometown, he knows that it could also bring potential risks to them. “I hope one day they can join hands. We know it’s very difficult but through negotiation and discussion, we dream to reach that point when we can get full rights and quality of life like other people. But I know there are very…very big political concerns behind the peace process.”  

Rang is now working with 18 volunteer teachers and 163 students at his school in HtoDoLayKho village, Kayah State, home of many internally displaced people in Myanmar. He commits himself to develop his hometown. His parents and villagers support and encourage him to serve the community as a role model for children. “I know that my people need me and I also love my people.” He added.  

He just hopes that one day his students will be able to explore the outside world to see what is happening at the global level, and access knowledge freely to determine their own future. Rang would like to use this opportunity to urge everyone from his hometown who received scholarships from abroad to come back after graduation. “There are many of them and they should know that we need them here. Please come back to help us.” It’s a very brief yet powerful request of a dedicated teacher who knows that quality education could bring about changes to his hometown.    

*The name has been changed to protect participant’s privacy.