New Delhi: The Ministry of Home Affairs issued guidelines for Unlock 4 on 29 August, permitting partial reopening of schools from 21 September.
“Students of classes 9 to 12 may be permitted to visit their schools, in areas outside containment zones only, on a voluntary basis, for taking guidance from their teachers,” said the guidelines.
Students will be permitted to go to school only with prior written consent from parents and only 50 per cent of the teaching and non-teaching staff will be called in.
Shorter hours, reduced strength, masks and sanitisers will be the norm as per standard operating procedure (SOP) released by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
Serological surveys show children have high Covid incidence
Studies have shown that children are less susceptible to severe Covid-19 as compared to adults. But if infected, they can become asymptomatic carriers of the disease.
Delhi’s second serological survey in August found about 35 per cent of children in the age group of 5-17 tested positive for antibodies — the highest percentage among all participants. Indore’s survey found a seroprevalence of about 7 per cent in children, which is similar to that of adults.
These numbers show that despite closure of schools, children have contracted the infection. Yet, some experts have welcomed the reopening of schools on the grounds that children have already built antibodies.
India is not the first to reopen schools. The US did so in in early August and within two weeks, it was found that there had been a 90 per cent increase in the number of Covid cases in children. A report by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association found that Covid clusters were found in Florida, Georgia and Mississippi schools days after reopening.
Israel reopened its schools in May after witnessing a slowdown in Covid spread but within weeks, thousands of students and teachers had to be sent into quarantine. Similarly, Germany saw 41 of its 825 schools in Berlin reporting cases of Covid with two weeks of reopening.
All this now raises the question if India, having reported more than 44 lakh Covid cases and with no signs of it slowing down, is ready for schools functioning as usual.
Experts advise caution
Anant Bhan, Researcher, Global health, Bioethics and Health Policy, is of the opinion that while households with no access to the internet may find physical school useful, the move comes with certain risks.
He said, “Countries across the world are struggling to find the best way to open schools. With the present guidelines, it is essential that district authorities maintain strict surveillance so that schools do not become Covid clusters.”
A serological survey by the Indian Council for Medical Research found a higher seroprevalence in urban areas, indicating a higher infection rate in cities. Talking about this, Bhan added, “Reopening of schools should first be attempted in areas with low-infection rates and once the success rate is determined, schools in high-infection areas like Mumbai and Delhi should be opened.”
Promulgating a similar idea, public health specialist Dr Anand Lakshman wrote, “Instead of a unitary school reopening policy for the entire country, given the difference in timings of peaks and rates of spread in various geographies, we should be empowering states, municipalities and panchayats to take local decisions based on their respective peaks, positivity rates, cases, death rates and sero-prevalence.”
Meanwhile, Giridhar R. Babu, professor and head, lifecourse epidemiology, at Public Health Foundation of India, is strongly against the move.
Speaking talking to ThePrint, he said, “One in three children in India are malnourished, add to that the physical and mental stress of the pandemic. This suggests that Indian children do not have a great immune response. With their movement in public transport, they stand the risk of spreading it.”
According to a UNICEF report, 69 per cent of deaths of children below the age of five in India happen due to malnutrition.
Talking about Delhi survey, Babu said, “This only shows that strict lockdown was not implemented in Delhi. It is reported that most children might have no symptoms or have mild symptoms. We do not have representative seroprevalence estimates from elsewhere in children to understand what adversities they may face. I am worried about multisystem inflammatory diseases in children, that occur as a sequelae in children. I would like to err on the side of being overcautious rather than expose children to unknown risk.”
Parents and teachers
A survey by LocalCircles, a community social media platform, said only 33 per cent of parents support the opening of schools.
Sunita Agrawal, a 48-year-old homemaker based in Dhangendra, Gujarat, is hesitant to send her daughter to school. “Whatever learning is required is happening via online classes. While I understand the importance given to Class 12 exams, but they are not more important than my daughter’s life,” she told ThePrint.
Aarti Devi, a 38-year-old Delhi resident who has three school-going children, said she would prefer that her children study online. “The area that we live in (Munirka village) has recently seen a spike in Covid numbers. We don’t want to risk it by sending our children to school,” said the parent whose daughter has just started her Class 12.
She added, “With so many children present, I doubt if teachers will be able to maintain a strict eye on all students. Children being children will invariably end up intermingling and sharing lunches.”
A teacher working with a private school in Delhi, too, was uncomfortable with the idea. “I know my school will diligently follow the rules but I will still prefer to opt out.” She said the risk for teachers would be much greater since travelling by metro and cabs would increase their exposure to infection.