The world has been on a roller coaster ride since March last year when coronavirus induces pandemic lead to the ‘closure’ of countries after countries. Now with the vaccine having arrived, and India reporting declining trends both in infection as well as mortality due to the dreaded virus,  the confusion over the virus remains as before. Amidst the ecstasy of the arrival of the vaccine and the reported declining trends of the spread of COVID-19, the state machinery has decided to reopen schools.  When the institutions of higher learning are still closed, offices and other places of gathering have been functioning with restrictions- and there are evidences that adhering to the safety norms is often compromised, can the system ensure safety for young school going children?  They are more likely to fault in adherence due to their innocence -unlike the adults. Several states are taking the decision to reopen schools in phases with strict COVID-19 guidelines. The Gujarat government has reopened schools for classes 10 and 12, and colleges for the final year graduation and post-graduation students from 11 January 2021. Attendance will not be mandatory for students and schools will have to strictly follow the Centre’s standard operating procedures (SOPs). The Punjab government reopened all schools even earlier, from 07 January for students of classes 5 to 12, and Rajasthan government reopened all educational institutions from January 18, while the Medical, Dental, Nursing and Paramedical Colleges reopened about a week earlier.  Odisha too reopened schools from 08 Jan 2021. Delhi, however, has decided to wait till the vaccine is available for public. The Tamil Nadu schools and colleges are doing the COVID test of students and staff members every day.

In all the states, permission of parents is mandatory to allow any student to attend school. If any parent does not want to send his ward, no pressure would be exerted on them by the school.  For such students online classes will continue. Only  50% students will be attending the school on a given day, the next half, on the next day. To avoid gathering, no morning prayers or group activities will be held. To compensate the loss of time, classes will be held on Saturdays too. Children will not share food or water. A gap of 30 minutes between each class to avoid crowding is instructed. Schools will function from 10 AM to 3 PM through the Academic session till 15 May.

Students in Bihar reporting infected status barely three days after the educational institutions started re-opening in the first week of January this year. It is important to rethink of the decision regarding opening of the schools and colleges. Two government schools in Bihar were closed in the first week of January after 22 students and three teachers of a school in Asarganj in Munger, and a school principal in Sariya Block of Gaya District tested positive for COVID-19.

What is the hurry to reopen the schools? Why is it that the numbers of cases infected with COVID that we have today are not alarming? The WHO is still to take a call on this. Approval of the vaccine seems to have triggered this notion. Offices have been ordered to have ‘100% attendance from beginning of this month without spelling out the measures of precautions. What was assumed conducive for ½ or 1/3 of the strength, how would that be feasible for 100% remains unclear. The seating arrangement with the safety norms of distance for all, for instance, may require more space than available. Or, vaccine arrival has evened it out, and therefore not needed anymore? This needs to b explicitly stated. Considering that the COVID cases have been consistently coming down from September 2020, when India reported nearly 100,000 new coronavirus cases a day, to the lowest of about 11,000 cases confirmed cases on 01 Feb 2021 in a country of nearly 1.4 billion people, it is imperative to decipher this. The Minster of State for Health has given credit to the government’s strategy of testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine- containment for controlling the outbreak. Additional correlates seem to have played significantly and deserve discussion.

Nevertheless, falling corona cases have led to the decision to reopen the school and colleges. With the option of hybrid classes- both online and off-line, the schools and colleges will require additional physical space and online platform which would enable online transmission of the offline classes. How many schools and colleges will be equipped to execute this, is an issue to seriously consider. The institutions need to have the means to provide the safety which may be difficult considering the poor infrastructure in the public sector schools and reduced budget for education. If online classes will be continued in order to ‘include’ students who will not be able to attend the physical classes, then, there is the most important requirement is of a system which will enable the teacher to do the classes in such a way that the physical classes are transported to the virtual platform too. This may require special skills to manage two distinct planes of teaching a class. Is the infrastructure and training for this in place? A more likely answer is ‘no’. Therefore, how will the constrained budgetary allocations enable this? Being inclusive for students on/off virtual platform is highly appreciable, but why are the considerations missing for the teachers? ‘Work from home’ stipulation has added multiple layers of work regimes on them. Managing their remunerative work for school, unpaid work for home including ensuring their own children’s attendance to their respective classes, has added to their burden of work as well as wellbeing. The teachers have been having a difficult time conducting online classes, initially due to their own learning process, and then, more importantly because of connectivity, bandwidth, students’ access to gadgets and their attention span. The dilemma and difficulty of teachers doing a class on physical education, or performing arts, or germination, or Pythagoras theorem needs attention. In some schools and colleges, it has been reported that the teachers have been doing the classes and examination online using email and WhatsApp- out of their personal expenses, instead of the schools and colleges setting up the infrastructure for this.

With classes being proposed both online and offline, the burden on the teacher has been tremendous and  needs to be examined and addressed appropriately. Appropriate digital infrastructure, personal gadget support, and counselling and care for stress and anxiety for the teacher and the taught are the least to begin with.

Dr. Sanghmitra Sheel Acharya is Professor, Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi and Former Director, Indian Institute of Dalit Studies. New Delhi . Research interest include health and discrimination; marginalization of underprivileged and vulnerable populations.


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