On November 2, when Himakshi Das saw Pinky at the temperature check queue at Guwahati’s Kamakhya Higher Secondary School, she almost rushed to give her best friend a hug — a pre-class, morning ritual for the last six years. But soon, the 11-year-old remembered her father’s words from the night before, and stuck to, “How are you?” through her new N-95 mask, from a safe distance. “Pinky did not hear me but I was happy,” says Himakshi. It had been, after all, eight months since the Class 6 student had last gone to school, met her teachers, or seen her best friend.
A week before her classes resumed, Himakshi’s father, who runs a hardware store in Guwahati, refused to sign the mandatory consent form allowing her to attend school. “He was worried. But I told him, life must go on, and if we want our daughter to be something, do something, she needs to go to school,” says Dipali Das, Himakshi’s mother. Eventually, he agreed.
After staying shut since March because of the pandemic, Assam reopened schools for Classes 9-12 on a “voluntary basis” in September. From November 2, students from Class 6 onwards were allowed to attend school. And, last month, with a dip in Covid-19 cases, state Health and Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced that classes from Class 1 to 6 will reopen on January 1.
“Since we reopened, no outbreaks have been reported,” says B Kalyan Chakravarthy, Principal Secretary, Department of Elementary and Secondary education, Assam, adding that it was an “absolutely rational decision”. “We have opened up the rest of the economy — parents are going out, going to the market, offices. So then why isolate children at home? Also, many poor students who attend government schools cannot afford a digital education.”
Agrees Dondeswar Rai, an electrician who was forced to sell fried snacks to provide for his family of three during the lockdown. “My daughter is a Class 9 student at Kamakhya Higher Secondary School, and I sent her to school in September. We can’t live in fear. I never attended school myself, so I have big hopes for my daughter,” he says.
Apart from speaking to her friends from a distance, Himakshi recalls how odd it felt to walk around in a mask on her first day back. “It was uncomfortable and boys in our class would keep taking it off, until we threatened to complain to ma’am,” she says. “But now we are used to it, and sometimes I don’t even realise I have it on.”
At the playground at Tarini Choudhury (TC) Government Girls School in Guwahati, a group of Class 10 girls break into a giggle as they recount their first day back at school. “The night before school was to open, we all were glued to the ‘TC Girls Gang’ WhatsApp group… Everyone kept asking, ‘Are you coming? I’ll go if you go.’ Only four of us showed up on the first day, but now almost our entire batch is back,” says Shivani Bezbaruah
“In the early days, we also had many doubts. Can we hug or hold hands like we did earlier? But those fears are now all gone,” says Jyotima Devi, another student in the group.
On a Tuesday morning, students of Kamakhya Higher Secondary School are in the playground with their masks on. “When the school reopened in September, we had only three students. As the Covid-19 cases reduced in the state, more turned up, and things have been under control. This has given us confidence about reopening on January 1 too,” says Principal Ratul Kumar Sarmah, adding that 80 per cent of the school’s 184 students are attending classes now.
At the Tarun Ram Phukan Hindi High School, which has about 765 students (150 of whom have returned), headmaster Ashok Kumar Choudhury recalls his trip to the campus in August, just before the school reopened. “There was grass growing up to my waist. And snakes… We cut the grass, sanitised the school, and got it ready. So far no new cases have been detected.”
While many of the state’s private schools have remained shut, allowing its teachers to work from home, government school employees have not had that option. “Of course, we worry. We have children and families at home… We wear our masks and try and be careful,” says a teacher who did not wish to be identified. “Now on January 1, when the younger students come back, we can only hope that all goes well.”
Back at Kamakhya Higher Secondary school, Himakshi says she is happy to be back at school, even if she and her best friend Pinky can no longer do their morning ritual. “At least we can sit together in class and study,” she smiles.
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