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Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Maharashtra: ‘School hours will be shortened, only one student will be permitted per desk’

Maharashtra, India’s worst-hit coronavirus state, is keen to reopen schools gradually from June 15 onwards. State’s School Education Minister Varsha Gaikwad speaks to The Indian Express on the plans, safety measures and new SOPs. Excerpts:

Written by Sandeep A Ashar | Mumbai | Updated: May 24, 2020 6:40:26 pm
 maharashtra lockdown, maharashtra coronavirus lockdown, lockdown news, maharashtra schools reopen, maharashtra news, mumbai news ‘E-learning cannot entirely replace classroom experience. Young kids, especially, find it difficult to grasp lessons online, said Gaikwad. (Picture for representation)

What is your plan regarding the reopening of schools?

We’re examining the option of gradually reopening schools from June 15 onwards, but a lot will depend on the clearance from the Union Home Ministry. The reopening can be done in a phased manner. Schools outside containment zones in non-red zones can open first. For non-red zones in Vidharbha, the proposal is to reopen schools from June 26 onwards. But we will first take several steps to maintain a safe environment for the students when they return to school. While schools have switched to e-learning in the big cities, our bigger concern at the moment is continuity of education of poor children from rural and tribal areas who do not have access to a smartphone or live in areas without internet connectivity. Classroom lessons are vital for them.

But some of the campuses are being used as Covid-19 quarantine facilities?

We’re compiling a list of all such campuses. The district Collectors and Chief Executive Officers of zilla parishads are helping us with it. Obviously, they can’t be put to use immediately. We won’t reopen any school before undertaking a proper disinfection in even those that are not being used for Covid-19 measures.

What about schools in Mumbai, other red zones?

They may have to wait longer. We’re closely monitoring the situation but the situation needs to improve a great deal before we can plan the reopening of schools in Mumbai. While the schools remain closed, our teachers are doing their best to make sure the students do not miss out on lessons. We are running an hour-long televised show on DD Sahyadri, Balbharti has also designed customised e-learning solutions, schools have switched online. But one thing’s for sure.

E-learning cannot entirely replace classroom experience. Young kids, especially, find it difficult to grasp lessons online. But we are planning to appoint teachers to follow up regularly with the parents to check how they are coping with it. We’re also exchanging notes with other states.

Will reopening make children vulnerable?

Incidence among children has so far been lower as compared to adults, but we do not intend to take any chances. The plan is to reopen the schools slowly in a manner that lowers the risk for the children and the teachers. We are formulating new SOPs for schools. Schools will have to follow strict hygiene guidelines and social distancing will have to be maintained at all cost.

What will a post-Covid school look like?

Maintaining a physical distance between students at all times will be key. We’re discussing running of classes in two shifts or calling one batch of students every alternate day. School hours will be shortened. Only one student will be permitted to sit on one desk. There will be no morning assemblies or sporting activities. Parents won’t be permitted inside school complexes. Teachers who have cold, cough or fever will be given the day off. There will be a strict hand hygiene routine for students. Toilets will be cleaned twice daily. Classes will be disinfected every day. We’re also examining the option of holding outdoor classes wherever possible. The feasibility of identifying spaces within educational complexes to separate and nurse students, teachers and staff who fall sick will be explored. The Diwali vacation calender may be shortened to make up for lost time.

How do you convince parents to send their children to school?

I’m aware that any announcement regarding the reopening of schools may meet some resistance. It’s not unexpected. That’s why we are planning to involve parents and teachers in the decision-making process. Next week, I’ll be holding an interaction with the parents to hear their suggestions and objections to the idea. We may even conduct a snap survey. Attendance to school might not be compulsory to start with.

How do you pull back children who have gone back to their native places? How do you minimise dropouts?

We’ll need to be more pragmatic. Not everyone who has gone to their native place will return immediately. So we are instead planning tie-ups with the local administrations to ensure that the children of migrants who have travelled back to their native villages within the state can be accommodated in local schools in that area. A more challenging response would be for children of migrants from other states.

We plan to map all such cases too. School managements will be asked to make sure that they continue to receive education, either by way of online classes or by their accommodation in schools in their respective states.

The lockdown has impacted both the schedule and paper assessment work of SSC and HSC board exams. Students are now worried about college admissions. What are the plans?

The future of more than 16 lakh children who appeared for their SSC exams, and another 12 lakh, who sat for the HSC exams, is at stake. Despite facing several issues, our teachers and my department’s staff are doing their best to announce the results as quickly as possible. We’ve allowed teachers to travel for assessment-related work. Moderators have also been permitted to carry answer papers home.

Normally, HSC results come out by the end of May, while the SSC results are out by June 10 or so. Our efforts will be to ensure that the results are out by the third week of June. Our aim is to complete the FYJC admission process, which is online, by July end.

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