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With Schools Closed During The Pandemic, Pakistani Students Rely On TV

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

In Pakistan, an estimated 33 million children had their education disrupted when schools shut down because of the pandemic. Most lack Internet access, which means online learning is not an option. So authorities are trying to keep kids learning with television. From Islamabad, NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Mushahid. Mushahid.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Mushahid Hussain hangs out with his friends. They're under a tree near their slum, and they're sharing the shade with a dozen cows. Hussain is 15, skinny and serious.

What do you want to be?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

MUSHAHID HUSSAIN: Doctor. Doctor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: He wants to be a doctor.

HADID: A doctor.

But he's worried that won't happen if his grades slip, so he's trying to keep up by watching TV - specifically, Teleschool. It's a public education channel that officials cobbled together in just weeks after schools shut down in March. Hussain tunes into the 45-minute-long 10th-grade class every day at 6 p.m.

MUSHAHID: Math, English, computer science. (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Hussain says nobody he knows has a laptop or has the Internet at home. And that's an issue across the country, which is why the government decided to use TV to keep kids engaged.

KHADIJA BAKHTIAR: They wanted to put something out there that kids of all ages keep somewhat of a semblance of learning continued.

HADID: Khadija Bakhtiar is the founder and director of Teach for Pakistan. It's a nonprofit that tries to improve education standards.

BAKHTIAR: The government priority is not just, how do we do the best for a few kids, but how do we make the most of this terrible situation for the most kids?

HADID: From morning to evening, Teleschool airs classes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: First-graders learn that Allah created the sun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: An eighth-grade math class on financial literacy is introduced by a cartoon Albert Einstein, who presents an eye-glazing talk on taxes.

Nadia Naviwala is with the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. She wrote a report critical of Pakistan's education system, and she says the government lost an opportunity by making Teleschool so boring.

NADIA NAVIWALA: Engaging, fun muppets on TV who teach you letters, numbers. And this is extremely appropriate for Pakistan because the majority of the kids cannot read or write.

HADID: That's because despite years of reforms, the system still focuses on memorizing textbooks. Most of the kids aren't learning in their native language, and they don't understand what's happening in class. And class itself can be brutal.

Back under the tree, another boy, Mohammad Hafiz, says he prefers the education channel to school. He's scared of his teacher.

MOHAMMAD HAFIZ: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Hafiz stretches out his palms to show us where his teacher strikes him with a stick when he hasn't done his homework. He's 6. And Hafiz's parents aren't relying on Teleschool to keep him learning. He's just returned from an underground class run by a private tutor. He says today they learnt shapes.

MOHAMMAD: C-I-R-C-L-E - circle.

HADID: Other Pakistani parents are also trying to send their kids to private tutors if they can afford them. We meet Qaisar Abbas by the roadside, selling mangos.

QAISAR ABBAS: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He's worried his oldest son will drop out if he doesn't pass ninth grade. But sales are down, so he shows us a creased paper where he's written the names of all the people he's borrowed money from to pay for a tutor. Abbas gestures to his youngest son. He says he can't afford a tutor for him as well. So we ask him, is he watching the education channel?

ABBAS: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Abbas shakes his head. He says no. He's too poor to own a television.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.