With schools having remained shut for over a year in Delhi, and the city on the slow mend from a wave of Covid, conversations on reopening are beginning to shift from social distancing and sanitising to vaccination.
The Delhi government, which has been stressing the need to protect children during a possible ‘third wave’, on Wednesday set up a task force to come up with plans and measures to this end.
“There will be need to build confidence among children and parents, and one thing is very clear, this virus is extremely infectious. This wave has taught us that ‘conventional’ precaution measures may not be enough, and our best hope lies with vaccines. What is the research, when can vaccines be available for children — a lot of things depend on the vaccination plan,” a senior government official said.
At present, those under the age of 18 cannot be vaccinated. Bharat Biotech got permissions to conduct phase 2 and 3 trials on children between the ages of 2 and 18 last week. Earlier this month, US health regulators approved Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine for children ages 12-15 years.
School principals and education officials in Delhi say the deadlier current Covid wave has made the question of schools re-opening in the city more difficult than ever, with some now saying that sanitisation and social distancing will not be enough — and that vaccines for children will have to be a part of that conversation.
Schools across the country had closed for all children with the national lockdown last March. They gradually began re-opening in different states, for different grades as decided by their respective state governments, but Delhi had maintained a cautious approach.
Schools in the city only opened on a voluntary basis for students of classes X and XII in January, and for classes IX and XI in February. Even these moved back online in April, and summer vacations were declared early as cases started to surge.
Before the current Covid surge took over, there was an expectation among school heads and even the Delhi education department that other children might start returning to school some time in July — something that is no longer considered possible.
Jyoti Arora, principal of Mount Abu Public School, Rohini, had created a detailed SOP for her school’s re-opening as early as June 2020. This was put into action during its limited re-opening earlier this year — with thermal screening, 16 students in a classroom, sensors in washroom taps and water coolers, and so on.
“All previous conversations we had on re-opening are no longer enough. The trauma, fear and anxiety among students, parents and teachers is far too much. Of course all the things we were doing before will continue to be important, but I don’t think it will be enough. It does not seem like we can physically reopen before the children get vaccinated,” she said.
Birla Vidya Niketan principal Minakshi Kushwaha said: “When we had opened for senior students earlier this year, we thought social distancing and sanitisation would be enough. But now there’s so much uncertainty, even about basic things like where it’s coming from: ‘Is it coming from the air?’ ‘What role does touch play?’ So we will need to be told by authorities about what else we’ll need to do…
“There’s also so much fear now about a ‘third wave’ which will affect children more. Parents will not be able to send their kids unless they’re absolutely safe, and I don’t see that happening in the coming months. Maybe around next January for classes X and XII but I’m not even very sure about that. They would have to be vaccinated or at least given some medicine.”
Other educators said that before the question of reopening schools, the question of the class XII board exams has to be addressed.
“The question of re-opening is the farthest from my mind at present, but class XII board examinations are a big question. There is no way in which they can be conducted… The arrival of vaccines in January signalled a victory over the pandemic. We were planning to return to 80% of what things were like pre-pandemic. But now we have to put in lots of effort to find a home which has not been affected by Covid. The perceived trauma of last year is real trauma this year,” Ashok Pandey, director, Ahlcon group of schools, said.