Football season, a mountaineering expedition, a cricket tournament, an inter-school debate competition – these are some of the events which have been canceled or postponed due to the pandemic at the Bishop Cotton School in Shimla, one of Asia’s oldest boarding schools for boys.
Though students are attending regular virtual classes from home, they are missing out on a number of sports and other activities, apart from the experience of community-living in the residential school, said Simon David Weale [MA Oxon] the school’s director.
“We’re eager for the campus to fill up with students again. They are attending 44 hours of virtual classes every week, and our teachers have improvised well and come up with innovative, teaching methods. But students are not obliged to attend all these classes as too much screen time could be unhealthy. Besides, the essence of holistic education provided here is the residential environment. That’s why even local students from Shimla live inside the campus,” said Weale.
A typical day at school begins at 6 in the morning and lasts till 10 at night, during which boarders are engaged in physical training, classes, organised games, prep and co-curricular activities such as public speaking, art and drama.
In summer, the school also organises outward-bound activities such as treks and adventure sports, and a month-long mountaineering training course for the outgoing batch, which have all been delayed this year. “The mountaineering course is usually followed by an expedition, and so far, there have been seven successful expeditions to Himalayan peaks above the altitude of 20,000 feet. For those who have missed the course this year, we are planning to rearrange it for them next year,” said Weale.
The school has a strength of about 450 students and 160 staff members. Though a majority of the students are from Himachal and neighbouring states of Haryana, Punjab and Delhi, there are students from all corners of the country, including Mizoram and Odisha, and some foreign students as well.
When the state government ordered closure of schools on March 14, around 70 per cent of the students left for their homes. Those appearing for their board examinations stayed back but left soon after the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CICSE) canceled the exams. Three boys from Thailand stayed back till as late as May but left as restoration of normalcy seemed distant.
Not the first disruption in school’s history
For many institutions, the pandemic crisis is unprecedented, but BCS has survived several such disruptions since it first opened for students in March 1863. On a Sunday in May 1905, when the boys were away for an outing, most of the school was destroyed in a fire. The students were shifted to other lodgings in town, and the school was rebuilt and occupied two years later in July 1907.
An outbreak of influenza in 1922 also affected the school, and the then headmaster FR Gillespy’s wife died while treating the children, said Weale.
After partition and independence, an exodus of Muslim, British and European boys led to the closure of the prep school in Chhota Shimla.
“We have also heard of some other disease outbreaks such as that of yellow fever during the school’s long history. And there was no internet back then to impart distance learning to the students, as is happening now,” said the director.
BCS was founded as the first ‘public school’ in India (along the lines of the British ‘public school’ system, which incorporates a house system, a prefectorial body and a system of organised games) by George Edward Lynch Cotton, the then Bishop of Calcutta, in July 1859. First established at Jutogh, it opened for students in March 1863 with Frederick Naylor as the first student. The school moved to its present site at the south end of the Knollswood Spur in September 1868. Suren Tagore was the first Indian boy admitted to the school in 1881.
BCS has a long list of distinguished alumni such as writer Ruskin Bond, six-time Himachal CM Virbhadra Singh and Major Roy Farran (Curzon), a decorated officer in the British Army. The school also has an infamous alumnus, Reginald Dyer, a British general remembered for his role in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. The motto of the school is: “Overcome Evil with Good”.