New Delhi: Last month, 300 school students tested positive for Covid-19 in two districts of Maharashtra, 229 of these in a single hostel at Washim. In Telangana, around 100 students across seven schools tested positive over two days this month. In Haryana, 54 students of a Karnal school were diagnosed with Covid-19, also this month.
Many schools across India have emerged as Covid-19 clusters since they reopened after the shutdown, with a similar trend reported from colleges too. Altogether, at least 1,000 Covid cases have been detected among schools and colleges in seven states.
The phased reopening of schools and colleges was first allowed by the Union government last October, with states/Union Territories subsequently deciding their own schedules for restarting offline classes.
India is currently experiencing what is being described as the country’s second Covid-19 wave, which has seen case numbers shoot up even as the vaccination programme continues.
While children are largely believed to suffer from a mild form of Covid-19, they could be potential carriers of infection.
The government directive for reopening schools made it clear that offline attendance was optional — students could only attend classes with the explicit consent of their parents. However, lakhs of students turned up for classes when their schools opened the doors.
Asked about the Covid clusters in schools, teachers said it could be the result of many factors, including more students attending classes than accounted for on a given day. To check such instances, they added, many schools have taken several measures like cancelling the sports period.
Currently, there is no approved Covid-19 vaccine for under-18-year-olds.
When the phased reopening of schools was given the green light, the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare issued instructions on the Covid hygiene that institutes were required to follow in order to prevent the spread of Covid.
Even so, the decision of reopening schools when the pandemic was yet to abate was one that had split medical experts. The doubts persist, even as experts point out that children have proved to be less susceptible to Covid-19 and its more severe effects.
“We have seen an increased number of cases among teenage children, who are contracting the disease. With entire families testing positive, how can we ensure safety of the youngest of our children?” said Dr Kalyan Ramalingam, director of the paediatrics department at Fortis Hospital, Noida, adding that he is opposed to reopening of schools.
“While younger children do show less susceptibility to the disease, we still don’t know which of the primary vaccines that we are giving to children is affording them immunity against the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” he added. “There may be multiple theories that BCG or MMR vaccine may be providing younger children with the required immunity against this disease, but largely there have been no indications regarding it yet.”
Asked if schools should have resumed offline classes, Dr Satyajith Rath, a visiting faculty member at IISER Pune, said, “One way of answering this is, had we geared up and had vaccination at a large scale, where teachers and parents are getting vaccinated, then opening schools would have been ideal.”
Speaking about the recent cases of Covid cases in schools, he added, “It is a reality that we have to accept that the infection is now spreading over a larger economic and social demographic. Over the last one month, the reason why India’s Covid numbers have peaked is because of the local outbreaks.”
Bengaluru-based Dr Anand Lakshman, a public health expert who works with children, said, “Most of these cases are of those students whose samples were taken before schools or colleges opened as they made RT-PCR mandatory to join… and results were coming in after a few days.
“Other cases were in hostels, where children and college students were living in close proximity. Most cases are asymptomatic. Children and young adults are not affected much.”
According to Dr K.K. Talwar, adviser to the government of Punjab on Covid-19, the spread within educational institutions could possibly be attributed to the UK variant. “Latest findings suggest 80 per cent of Covid cases in Punjab are of the UK variant, which tends to affect people under 30 years of age. The spread in education institutes could possibly be an outcome of the same.”
“Keeping this in mind, schools and colleges in the state have been shut for two weeks,” he added.
At ThePrint’s Off The Cuff Friday, AIIMS Director Dr Randeep Guleria weighed in on the issue too, describing reopening of schools and vaccination for children as “the two challenges that we have right now”.
“It’s difficult to have Covid-appropriate behaviour in schools, so unfortunately, the risk of spread there is high. Luckily studies indicate that children don’t suffer a severe infection,” he said.
In the initial days after schools were reopened, a survey by a Bengaluru-based pre-school and day care centre found over 50 per cent of parents in seven cities unwilling to send their children to schools. However, a second phase of the survey, conducted a month after India’s Covid vaccination was rolled out in January, found a major shift, with 85 per cent of respondents saying they were willing to send their children back to school.
Another survey, conducted by a Delhi-based NGO across 20 backward districts in 10 states, found over 80 per cent of parents and children wanted schools to reopen.
While online classes were widely adopted during the lockdown to maintain the pace of curriculum, they were not seen as a feasible option for students from economically disadvantaged sections, as well as those from remote areas with poor connectivity.
For some parents, however, allowing their children back in schools is a risk they reluctantly take.
Mamata Singh, a Delhi-based mother-of-three, told ThePrint her eldest daughter, who is in Class 10, goes for offline studies once a week.
“That is alright with us as long as Covid precautions are being followed. Since board exams are important, we have no option but to send our children to solve their doubts,” she added. “I am not willing to send my younger children to school yet. That will happen only when the pandemic abates.”
Discussing the Covid cases in schools, Vibha Singh, president of the Delhi MCD Teachers Association, said, “logistical problems in classrooms” could be a factor.
“As per guidelines given by the Delhi government, only 15 children can be present in a classroom. Sometimes, when more than 15 students turn up, teachers have to accommodate them,” she added. “It is possible that while doing so the child is in proximity of another child who might be infected.”
In residential schools, she said, infection could have been caused by “an adult staff member who has access to the outer world”. “It is also possible that parents… may have contracted the disease and unknowingly started the chain.”
In order to remove all chances of spread, she added, “teachers have prohibited children from having a sports period”. “In addition, sanitisers are placed in classrooms and corridors, so that students are alert and sanitise their hands at every given occasion.”
Edited by Sunanda Ranjan
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.