The COVID-19 pandemic has put uncertainty in every aspect of our life and that’s why it has not yet been decided when schools should open. However, we need to have a school-level plan ready in line with a risk-mapping exercise. Some attentiveness and foresight on this matter will help us minimise the chances of further spreading COVID-19 infections.
Before students arrive at school, risk-mapping and some basic changes have to be done. New seating arrangements have to be made and parameters for classroom interaction and the mid-day meal need to be worked out. Though schools have been closed since March, the teachers have been regularly assigned tasks. While the states are moving closer towards opening schools, there is no plan yet ready on teachers’ preparedness to return to schools. Without taking a COVID-19 test, teachers and students may be putting themselves and others at a risk.
In Uttar Pradesh, secondary school students may now visit the school to connect with the teachers and clear doubts. Fifty per cent of teaching and non-teaching staff can be called on a rotational basis by the school administration. However, there has to be clarity on who is to be called to duty first and who could be exempted from reporting for work immediately after the schools reopen.
A teacher’s union leader says that the administrators hold the perception that all teachers are doing well and must come to school when they restart. There is talk that the union must demand special compensation in case a teacher falls sick during the pandemic. Should a compensation policy be in place for the students as well? Also, should teachers engaged in conducting entrance exams be screened for COVID-19 and be asked to go on quarantine after the exam? Do we have a plan for a rapid medical test for the officials and students involved in conducting entrance exams?
Before schools reopen, will all students, teachers, and other staff have to undergo a COVID test? If we start school after doing a risk analysis of every school at the local level, the school administration can use the strategy of trace, test, and treat at the school level. Teachers who have a history of chronic illness or are older in age might be at greater risk of COVID-19. Similarly, pregnant female teachers, teachers with disabilities may be last in line to be called for duty at the school.
Small private schools are struggling to survive. Some private schools have shut down as parents have not payed the fees for the last six months. Teachers working with such schools have not been paid salary months. Schools running in rented premises are not in a position to pay the rent. Do we plot some assistance to these students/schools?
A parent driving an Uber taxi in Delhi spoke about his child in class five. He has been getting calls from the school to pay Rs 5,000 for books and admission in the new semester. With hardly any business, he has not paid the money. He is in a dilemma — whether to withdraw his son from school for this year or pay the fee and continue.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that a substantial number of enrolled students have gone back to their native villages. No mapping has been done so far to guage the number of children in migrant families. The economic crisis that started with the lockdown will affect a large section of students and teachers, especially those working with private schools. Special efforts may be needed to draw them back into the teaching-learning system.
Schools have reopened in countries such as France, Denmark, New Zealand, and China. Within a week of school reopening in France, 70 children were found to be infected with the novel coronavirus. Now, these countries have started testing and tracing for the virus, considering the school as a centre for trace, test, and treat strategy. Parents in these countries have been asked to take their children’s temperature daily before dropping them to school. In the school, temperature of the students is being taken twice a day. When schools reopen in India, sanitisers and masks have to be non-negotiable elements. School administrations will have to make sure that all the students and personnel follow social distancing norms. All schools must keep a sufficient number of digital thermometers to measure the student’s temperature and maintain a daily record.
Many states have formed committees to formulate strategies for the opening of schools. Similarly, the National Council of Educational Research and Training has prepared guidelines for schools. But if parents do not feel confident that the school is prepared to deal with the crisis, they may prefer losing one academic year over putting their ward in additional risk.
The writer is adjunct faculty, Ambedkar University, Delhi