Updated: August 7, 2021 8:00:52 am
The efficacy of total lockdowns as a public health measure is yet to be proven. But we seem to have allowed our imagination and thinking to get trapped into that logic, regardless of the social and economic costs to society. Countries that imposed lockdowns, including China, have seen a re-emergence of infections while Sweden that did not impose a lockdown has close to zero deaths today. However, it’s apparent that localised restrictions on movements in high positivity areas for a limited period make sense.
The impact of lockdowns has undoubtedly been painful at both the macro and micro-levels. Amongst the worst affected are children, ironically the least vulnerable.
Morbidity and mortality among children have been comparatively lower. As per a recent UK study, deaths are two per million and hospitalisation under severe conditions about 1 in 50,000. Studies carried out in the US, Ireland, Norway, Germany and other parts of the world have shown very low to negligible transmission of infection in, and due to, schools, particularly where the discipline of wearing masks, physical distancing and personal hygiene has been enforced even moderately. In fact, most countries have persisted with in-person learning. Only a handful have shut down schools. India is one of them.
While we have no information regarding the cohort of children who have been hospitalised or have died due to Covid over the past 18 months, as in the case of adults, children with comorbidities such as diabetes or obesity are likely to be more vulnerable. Such data, along with seropositivity studies, need to be triangulated and analysed to enable evidence-based policy formulation instead of panic or speculation guiding decision making.
Available evidence seems to suggest that from a strictly epidemiological standpoint, there is weak justification for the stringent and prolonged lockdown of schools – particularly, primary schools. We do hear of online classes. But with less than a quarter of the country having internet access and the lackadaisical manner of the implementation of online learning by untrained teachers, the reach of such instruction to even urban students has been patchy. Students from rich families attending “good” schools may have benefitted somewhat from online education, but they are only a minuscule section of the learners.
The impact of this policy is generational and has undone a lot of the gains in education. A large number of children are now joining the workforce, adolescent girls are being married off, instances of child abuse have increased, a majority of the poor, denied midday meals, are facing hunger and nutritional deficiencies, not to mention the loss of social interaction and self-confidence – they are missing out on the joys of learning. Most students have forgotten what they had learnt in their previous class. The losses could, in fact, be more severe than currently understood — loss of focus, memory and interest in learning.
In January, the Azim Premji Foundation undertook a study of 16,067 primary class children in 1,137 schools spread over 44 districts in five states. The purpose of the study was to assess the “forgetting/regression” kind of learning loss among children with regards to language and math. Since these are what are referred to as foundational abilities, loss could imply serious consequences for the future. The results of this study showed that 92 per cent and 82 per cent children lost one or more of the abilities that constitute language and math learning respectively. Put simply, they had forgotten how to speak or write, add or multiply.
Though this study had recommended “not to rush into promoting children to the next class,” Telangana has promoted the students to the next class by skipping the one they were to have attended but for the lockdown. It is unclear if the implications of this policy have been interwoven into the teaching schedules when schools do open. Teachers, for example, will need to conduct bridge courses for those promoted to Class 4 by having to cover the syllabus of Class 2 (to refresh memory), Class 3 (to teach what they have missed out) and then continue with Class 4. More importantly, teachers will have to be trained in pedagogy and assessment skills required for such remedial teaching of children with different and varied learning levels. More importantly, training materials and trainers will need to be organised. Peer educators and retired persons in the community will need to be roped in to volunteer to cope with the workload. A new organisational dynamic will need to be introduced that could require logging in more hours. It is a daunting situation, requiring visionary leadership.
There are enough choices for opening schools. There is enough scientific evidence that in open spaces, the infection does not spread so effectively. Rural areas are full of such spaces where classes can be held. Timings and school schedules can be staggered to avoid crowding or mixing. Schools need not be held for the whole day. It would suffice even if classes are held for two hours covering critical subjects, and on alternate days. It will require the staff to work harder and the administration to have more detailed plans. Health departments will have to be more actively linked to schools and stay alert. Teachers and parents will have to be given high priority in vaccination by having vaccination camps at schools. Finally, this will also require involving the community and civil society. It is impossible for governments to deliver on this grave situation without the active engagement of all stakeholders. Devising and enforcing new norms of behaviour and schedules would require intensive discussions with parents, school authorities, and civil society organisations. Governments have to give up their current anti-NGO/civil society stance and seek an all society-centred approach to safeguard our children’s future.
We still cannot predict when the pandemic will become localised. It is essential we learn to live with an awareness of the presence of the virus around us by adopting Covid-appropriate behavior and keeping ourselves safe.
Politicians have adopted the easy solution of avoiding action and responsibility by saying parents are unwilling to send their children to schools. The fears of parents are legitimate. But let them be given a choice. There is also a need to see things in perspective: Every year in India, lakhs of children die due to diarrhoea, malnutrition and diseases of the upper respiratory tract and other illnesses caused by pollution. Fragile environments imply higher responsibility. But life has to move on. Children have suffered a lot. We have a responsibility for their future. It is time for parents to wake up and demand accountability from the government and political leaders. Or is it time for suo motu action from the Supreme Court?
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 7, 2021 under the title ‘Time to unlock the school’. The writer, a former health secretary, was also ex commissioner and secretary education in united Andhra Pradesh.