New Delhi: Janmejai Singh, a 10-year-old student in Noida, attended school for just 10 days after physical classes for younger students resumed in Uttar Pradesh in September, following prolonged virtual studies owing to the pandemic. Apprehensions of a third Covid wave towards the end of the year have since made his parents — Sunita and Santosh — reluctant to continue sending him to school.
In nearby Delhi, Smita Mohan, parent to a 12-year-old daughter, is also equally scared to send the child to school. “The kind of horror that we have all seen in the second (Covid) wave is enough to make us cautious for a lifetime. I do not mind my child attending online classes for a few more months… I’m worried about the post-Diwali effect on Covid cases in the city. The severe air pollution in the national capital and the dengue outbreak have added to my anxiety,” she said.
The Singhs and Mohan are not the only parents to have such fears about whether its safe to send their children to school. Anecdotal evidence suggests parents have become much more cautious about their children’s health following the pandemic, and absence from school has become more common than before.
Ameeta Mulla Wattal, principal of Springdales School, Delhi, agreed that she has noticed an increased anxiety among parents about their children’s health. “Parents have become a lot more cautious post Covid-19… They want to stop sending children to school for everything, whether there is a dengue outbreak in the city, or air pollution,” said Wattal.
Urging parents to get over their fears and send their children to schools so that the process of in-person learning can continue, she added, “They (parents) need to change their mindset and have to realise that if there is a constant break in studies like this, children’s learning abilities will suffer in the long run.”
Schools in Delhi reopened for students in Classes 9-12 on 1 September, and for all classes on 1 November. The classes were in hybrid mode, which means that online classes continued for those wanting to study from home.
However, starting Monday, schools in the national capital were closed for a week, following an emergency meeting by the Delhi government to devise a plan to tackle the air pollution in the city. Delhi has also been facing one of its worst dengue outbreaks in recent years — a mixed bag of reasons that are all contributing to parents’ reluctance in sending their children to schools.
However, Delhi is not the only place in the country where parents are displaying such anxieties. Reports of children being kept away from schools have also come in from other parts of the country, despite educationists and healthcare experts urging a quick return to school for students across classes and age groups.
What’s bothering parents outside Delhi
“There is a (new) level of apprehension and anxiety that can be observed among parents after Covid. Parents do not wish to send their wards to school. To some extent their concerns are justified, given the brutality of the pandemic we have seen earlier this year,” said Arjumand Jhanjharya, principal of Orchids International School, Yari Road, Mumbai.
She added, however, that “if schools take proper safety measures and follow the guidelines prescribed by the health authorities, it will instill confidence in the parents with regard to the safety of their kids”.
Her faith in the return of parents’ confidence is contradicted by the anxiety expressed by Anita Raghavan, a Mumbai parent with two children — a 9-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son.
While Raghavan has reconciled herself to sending her son to school, she is yet to gain enough confidence to let her daughter do so. Even the possibility of her daughter contracting viral fever, or any other infection that’s not Covid, worries her.
“The school has given the option to continue with online classes and I would like to wait for a couple more months before I send my younger one to school. This is the season for viral fevers and other infections, I do not want to risk my child’s health,” she said.
Her fears are shared by Seema Sharma, a mother in Bhopal, who stopped sending her two daughters to school, after some fellow students contracted viral fever.
“Three children in my elder daughter’s class came down with viral fever and were seriously ill for two weeks. This was before Diwali… I stopped sending both my daughters to school after that. I will only send them to school from next month now,” she said.
This parental anxiety is, however, becoming a cause of worry for teachers struggling to ensure attendance in schools.
A teacher in Bhopal’s Carmel Convent School, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that they are struggling with over-cautious parents who are keeping their children from attending school much more frequently than they would before the pandemic.
“We have been struggling with over-cautious parents ever since the schools reopened… first they were apprehensive about Covid protocols, which we have ensured are in place. Now there are parents who are scared of children contracting dengue, chikungunya, viral fever — common diseases this time of the year — and want to stop sending kids for the fear that they will catch the disease in school,” she said.
In states where school attendance is optional, many parents are still choosing the online model for their children, said teachers.
“Attendance is optional in Gujarat and so many parents are still choosing to teach their kids through online mode,” said Vamsi Krishna, principal of Delhi Public School, Surat. “We have not faced any major issues with attendance since schools have reopened, but that is also because parents have the liberty to not send their kids to school.”
Experts urge return to schools
Meanwhile, experts feel anxieties will fade only once parents and children are able to adapt back to physical classes.
“The fear and uncertainty of another wave of the pandemic post festival season, the delay in vaccines for kids, and confusing school Covid protocols have certainly created a paranoia among parents. Many are adopting an approach of waiting for a few weeks post Diwali, before sending their kids to school. However, these initial fears will go away once the kids start going to schools and families settle down to that new routine,” Raghavendra Prasad, founder of Project StepOne, a non-profit start-up collective of technology and healthcare professionals, told ThePrint.
National Coalition on the Education Emergency, a collective of educationists and health experts from around the country, has also been regularly talking about the importance of returning to physical classrooms. The group has even highlighted the gaps that have been created in the 18 months when schools were closed because of the pandemic and what needs to be done to address them.
(edited by Poulomi Banerjee)