Some Iranian children are literally climbing mountains to access online school

These children from Dolbi, a village in southeast Iran, and their mothers are climbing a mountain in order to find an internet connection stable enough for the children to access their classes online.
These children from Dolbi, a village in southeast Iran, and their mothers are climbing a mountain in order to find an internet connection stable enough for the children to access their classes online. © Observers
Text by: Alijani Ershad
8 min

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Some Iranian children are finding virtual school harder than others. Photos have recently emerged on social media of children in rural areas who literally have to climb a mountain every day to find an internet connection strong enough so that they can attend their online classes. People have been especially shocked by the image of a child who fell and was injured on his dangerous hike to access the internet. We spoke to one teacher who feels utterly helpless in the face of the situation. 

Iran has one of the highest Covid-19 rates in the Middle East, with more than 43,000 officially recorded deaths. However, even officials at the Ministry of Health admit that the actual number of dead is likely three or four times that number. 

Most schools across Iran have been closed, except a few schools in rural areas. The Iranian government is pushing for all students to stay home and attend online classes using an application called Shad, which was developed by the Ministry of Education. However, to participate in distance learning, children need a strong internet connection or, at the very least, a cell phone.

Even though the number of Iranians with access to the Internet has increased dramatically over the past ten years, the digital divide remains a real issue. Many students living in rural areas face serious connection issues, unlike those in large towns where mobile networks are accessible.

Screenshot
Screenshot © Observers France 24

“Is it fair that these children have to give up their studies and [the chance to go to] university?” asks the person who filmed this video in Golzamin, a village in central Iran.

 

However, some children in rural areas have shown an incredible determination to attend their online classes. Some walk for kilometres and climb to the tops of nearby hills or mountains to tap into 3G networks, despite how dangerous the journey may be.

Several teachers and activists have spoken out about the situation, publishing photos and videos of children walking across the mountains, cell phones in hand, trying desperately to find an internet connection solid enough to enable them to participate in their classes via the Shad application.

This photo was taken in Avaj in central Iran.
This photo was taken in Avaj in central Iran. © Observers

One photo in particular underscores just how terrible this situation is for many children. On November 7, a photo of a young boy with blood all over his face was posted online, shocking viewers across Iran. The young man took a bad fall on a mountain near Rumoshtik, a town in eastern Iran, when he was trying to connect to the application so he could attend online classes.

 

This photo shows the boy who took a bad fall near Rumotshik. It was posted online on November 7.
This photo shows the boy who took a bad fall near Rumotshik. It was posted online on November 7. © Observers

 

"Politicians sitting in air-conditioned offices with a strong 4G connection are the ones overseeing plans for distance learning."

Hermidas (not his real name) is a teacher who works in a rural region in northeast Iran. Before, he taught a class of about 20 or so students. For the past two months, however, he’s had to teach using a smartphone and the internet. Distance learning has been really challenging for many of his students:

We’ve been doing online classes since September 22, when the fall semester began. We immediately realised that less than half of the children had a smartphone and none had access to an internet connection at home. After a few days and speaking to lots of parents, we realised that there were locations high up in the nearby mountains where you could get internet access. Since then, the children from the village have walked 45 minutes to reach that spot every day. And, right now, it is particularly cold. 

 

A child from Dolbi, a village in southeast Iran, climbing a mountain in order to get a stable enough internet connection for the children to access their classes online.
A child from Dolbi, a village in southeast Iran, climbing a mountain in order to get a stable enough internet connection for the children to access their classes online. © Observers

Another problem is that these children don’t have their own cell phones, so they have to borrow a phone from a member of their family who sometimes needs it. So, sometimes, they can only have it for a few hours before they have to give it up. 

Morally, I feel like I am trapped at an impasse. How can I ask these children to climb a mountain? If there’s an accident, I will feel responsible. Thankfully, for now, nothing has happened to any of the children who are in my class but I fear that in the weeks to come, with the snow and the cold, it will be almost impossible to hold class. 

"Some of the young girls, who were brilliant students, are no longer taking my classes”

Another consequence of this situation is that young girls who were brilliant students are no longer taking my classes. I lost all of my female students because their parents don’t want them to climb the mountain [Editor’s note: The region is extremely conservative and most young girls need their parents’ permission to go anywhere].

As for the boys, there are about four or five who only attend intermittently and I have to catch them up on the lessons. I know that some of them borrow a neighbour’s telephone in order to attend class. The children try to share information among themselves. Other times, I’ve called to check in on students who I haven’t seen for a long time but, often, I struggle to reach them. 

This student built a little hut in the mountains in the province of Sistan-and-Baluchestan, where he can get internet and participate in online classes. This photo was posted on Twitter on November 14.
This student built a little hut in the mountains in the province of Sistan-and-Baluchestan, where he can get internet and participate in online classes. This photo was posted on Twitter on November 14. © Observers

I went to school once to give the students a lesson in-person. Some of the children had no idea what I was talking about because they hadn’t been able to attend the virtual classes. Even so, they are usually full of energy and curiosity and eager to learn. One of my colleagues in the region was able to continue giving in-person classes [Editor’s note: The Iranian government has made exceptions for small villages without internet access and for teachers who live near the schools where they teach]. However, I don’t live in the region where I teach so I have to do it virtually now. 

Politicians sitting in air-conditioned offices with a strong 4G connection are the ones overseeing plans for distance learning. They don’t know what it's like outside their ivory tower. They aren’t interested in what things are like for village children. They launched this online learning system months ago. They could have come up with a solution to supply emergency internet access or given cell phones to children from poor families. They could have made the internet free in these areas, but they did nothing. 

Child suicides reported by some Iranian media outlets

Several media outlets, including the BBC Persian service, have reported that at least eight children living in rural areas who were unable to attend classes online have committed suicide in recent weeks. Our Observer says he, sadly, isn’t surprised by this horrifying statistic:

We haven’t had any cases in my class but I understand the danger. These children believe that the only way for them to escape poverty is by going to school. Right now, for example, it’s their poverty preventing them from going to virtual school, learning and gaining the chance to ascend the social ladder. This situation reinforces pre-existing inequalities and feeds into the shame they feel that they are not on equal footing with their classmates. 

We must never forget how important the idea of studying is to our culture and what a strong force social pressure is in Iran. Each year, there are cases of students committing suicide after they get bad grades. 

The Iranian government, for its part, denies that any children have committed suicide because they are unable to attend school online. They also say that they haven’t reported any cases of children being injured while climbing mountains.