AP PHOTOS: Kashmir schooling now more challenging with virus

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Children in Indian-controlled Kashmir are no strangers to lockdowns. Curfews, strikes and school shutdowns are all part of growing up in one of the world’s most militarized zones.

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So when schools in the disputed region reopened after six months in late February, 9-year-old Jannat Tariq was overjoyed to see her friends and teachers.

She had spent months under a strict lockdown that began in August 2019, when India scrapped the region’s semi-autonomous status, closed schools and colleges, and imposed harsh curbs on civil rights and communications, including a shutdown of the internet.

In February, it finally was time to return to formal schooling. But Jannat’s happiness was short-lived.

The following month, she was once again forbidden to go to school, but for a completely different reason: the coronavirus pandemic.

Decades of insurgency, protests and military crackdowns have constantly disrupted formal schooling in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where rebels have fought for decades for independence or unification with Pakistan, which controls the other part of the Muslim-majority region. A generation of students have seen their education upended, and empty classrooms are a familiar sight.

Over the years, volunteer-run community schools and makeshift classrooms have emerged to fill the gap when formal schools shut, but large-scale troop deployments and restrictions on public movement mean they reach only a small proportion of students.

Now, the coronavirus lockdown is amplifying the problem.

Experts say lack of formal schooling during the lockdown could have a serious psychological and emotional impact on the children. With no opportunity to be with friends, many homebound students are struggling to reimagine the school experience as parents take over the role of teachers.

Like elsewhere in the world, online classes could have bridged that gap. But in Kashmir, it is a luxury students can’t afford.

A year after India’s sudden move to strip Kashmir's semi-autonomy, high-speed internet remains restricted in the region. India continues to defend the move by saying limited internet speed helps to head off anti-India protests that sometimes lead to clashes between demonstrators and Indian troops.

Confined to their homes, students have found it challenging to study online with the painstakingly slow internet connections, which also faces outages following the frequent gunbattles between rebels and Indian soldiers.

“We are not able to keep up with lessons online and we miss our regular school,” said 11-year-old Mohsin Shafi.

With no high-speed internet, many educators are unable to upload video lectures and conduct online classes. But some are making the best of limited resources.

When months went by without teaching, Muneer Alam, an engineer-turned-math teacher in Srinagar, the region’s main city, started an informal community school in June in the form of an open-air classroom.

Alam said the driving force to start the open-air classes was seeing children all around him depressed and anxious.

It worked.

The open-air classroom buzzes with students. Some sit on chairs. Others place themselves on rugged mats or on the ground. Social distancing is maintained.

“I wanted to give children an opportunity to attend a few classes with familiar faces around them,” Alam said.