New Delhi: More than a year after schools moved to the virtual space to check the spread of Covid in the country, experts — both from the field of education and healthcare — and a section of parents are pushing for the reopening of schools to allow children a semblance of normalcy. This, despite talks of an imminent third wave, which at one time was feared will affect children more adversely. However, subsequent studies have since dispelled such fears.
“It is high time that governments take a serious look at the situation and reopen schools. We are doing more harm than good to students by keeping schools closed for such a long time. All the studies done in the West and advice by doctors in India also say that children can be called back to school,” said Professor Bhaskaran Raman of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay.
On the possibility of a third Covid wave and its impact on children, he said, “There is no basis to all the talk happening around the third wave and even if another Covid-19 wave does come, serosurveys show that a large population has already developed antibodies against Covid.”
Raman is part of the ‘Back to school’ campaign along with three mothers — Dharini Mathur and Tanya Aggarwal, both Delhi-based lawyers, and Simran Khara, a start-up founder — as well as a group of pediatricians and professors from across IIT Bombay, Delhi, Madras and Ashoka University.
The group had written an open letter to the chief ministers of Maharashtra, Delhi and Karnataka in the last week of July, urging them to reopen schools following all safety protocols. One of the reasons cited by them was the difficulty children from the economically weaker section of society were facing in accessing virtual classes.
“The costs of school closure are immense, especially on the poorer sections of society,” the open letter says.
It adds that “online education is not accessible to all” and “apart from learning loss, children are subject to loss of confidence, mental distress, violence and abuse, and reduced development of social skills. The consequences for children will be felt in their academic achievement, societal engagement as well as physical and mental health.”
What is also under consideration, however, are steps that schools need to take to ensure both the physical safety of the students and to address the psychological challenges of coping with the pandemic. Last year, the Ministry of Education had issued guidelines for schools to follow once they reopened.
Price of staying at home
According to experts, there are many adverse effects from keeping children at home, which include health problems.
Dr Prabhat Maheshwari, chief, neonatal & paediatric critical care, Artemis Hospital, Gurugram, told ThePrint that it has already been too long a time for children to have spent at home and they were already seeing the effects — obesity, psychological trauma and loss of confidence.
“There are three reasons why schools should reopen for children. Children anyway have natural immunity against several diseases … the serosurvey too shows that almost 60 per cent of children have antibodies against Covid and if we have opened everything from malls, tourism and offices, then why deprive children of classroom learning?” he said.
“To those who think that they will send their kids to school only after they are vaccinated, let me say that nowhere have vaccines been approved for those less than 12 years of age. And in places where vaccines are being given to 16-year-olds, it is only for those with health issues like obesity and other life-threatening conditions. So it makes no sense waiting for the vaccine,” he added.
Experts also pointed at studies that claim there was no substantial evidence to show that children will be affected more in the third wave. They noted that since there was no knowledge on the duration of the pandemic, children, like others had to learn to live with it.
“We must remember that this virus is going to be here for a few years, so we need to find a way to live with it. In an attempt to protect our children, we shouldn’t deprive them of quality education. But the decision should ultimately lie with parents, whether they want their children to continue with online education or return to school,” Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, epidemiologist, public policy, and health systems expert told ThePrint.
Those in the education sector also argue in favour reopening of schools.
Shaheen Mistri, CEO Teach for India, a not-for-profit organisation working for the education of underprivileged children, said that getting back to school in some capacity is “critical”.
“The past 16 months and the impact on our kids has provided us with an unprecedented opportunity — the chance to reimagine education. It’s a chance to fix the system ‘for’ not just our kids but ‘with’ our kids. Getting back to school, in some capacity is critical and as some states open with care and safety, we must change the way we measure progress of our children, broaden the curriculum, bridge the digital divide and in the process, reduce the educational inequity,” she said.
Principal Vasant Valley school, Delhi, Rekha Krishnan had written a letter to the Delhi Education Minister Manish Sisodia last week, highlighting the importance of reopening schools now, while following all Covid-19 protocols.
“It is almost impossible to accept that the children who joined us in 2020 only know their classmates as boxes on the screen. They have not had the opportunity to meet with them socially or interact with them through play,” she wrote.
There is no doubt, however, that even when schools reopen, the pre-and-post-Covid classroom experience will be vastly different.
How post-Covid schools will look like
The Ministry of Education last year came up with clear guidelines for schools once they reopen. According to the guidelines, schools have been asked for refrain from assessing students up to two-three weeks after reopening of schools.
They have also been asked to make a comprehensive academic calendar for the entire year, keeping in mind the learning outcomes. The academic calendar has to be in accordance with what the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) came up with last year. The NCERT calendar asked schools to focus more on experiential than textbook learning.
The guidelines also added that teachers must discuss a clear roadmap of curriculum and modes of learning that need to be adopted. Dates of school-based assessment, breaks etc. should be discussed in advance with students, the guideline added.
Krishnan agrees that the school reopening process is going to be like walking a tightrope. “Creating safe physical spaces and establishing safety protocols is a given. And training the people concerned who will be using these spaces is at the bottom of the pyramid,” she added.
She suggested that students be called back for a fixed number of hours and with 50 per cent capacity.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)