It was very nice to read reports about some states reopening schools, and some others planning to do so. Over the last several months, during the various ups and downs, lockdowns and unlocks, start-stop activities in both business and social spheres, one (near) constant feature has been the closure of schools. It is the easiest thing to do because the consequences are not immediately obvious. During the pandemic, they were the first to close nationwide and would probably be the last to open.
Various states have attempted to reopen schools, with limited successes due to the resurgence of the virus. Barring some attempts, such as conduct of entrance tests and optional attendance by some pupils, schools have remained out of reach for most. The recent attempts will also face obstacles, possible lead to a rise in local infections, and other disruptions, but let us hope authorities and parents are prepared to face these.
That brings us to a more fundamental point. Do we treat the education sector, schools in particular, as an essential activity? In the recent past, we have had big rallies, protests, social and religious festivities (on a reduced scale though) and crowded markets, busy roads and almost every activity, but the doors of schools have remained shut. We constantly talk about GDP growth rates but ignore schooling and education which determine, according to several scholarly studies, long-run development and growth.
Over the last nine months, human interaction in the real world has become a scare resource. The pandemic has forced us to prioritise activities over which this limited resource can be spent. Different societies have chosen to act differently in this respect. The European model has been to keep schools running as much as possible, with great innovations. Denmark and Norway opened schools early in April/May in a staggered manner — this didn’t lead to a second or third wave of infection. In the UK and Germany, schools reopened in August/September, and it was not smooth sailing for them. Some schools had to be closed temporarily, some (in Germany) adopted mass testing. Reopening schools could have contributed to some increase in infection numbers as well, but then all activities have produced such an outcome. But the government and school authorities deserve credit. For instance, the UK opted for a second nationwide lockdown in the first week of November but announced its resolve to keep schools open: It chose schools over non-essential business. Several countries in Europe did the same, signalling that schooling was to be identified as an essential activity.
Of course, such comparisons are not fair. The incidence of infection, the school support systems and budgetary burdens are different. But we should not dismiss these examples on the ground that these countries could keep their schools open because they are developed. It can be argued that they are developed because they consider schooling to be an essential activity and do their utmost to see students do not lose out. In fact, the UK’s education minister made it clear that “continuity of education is a national priority” and the government was threatening to take action against a local council which had ordered closure of schools!
Apart from intent, what else makes keeping schools open so hard in India? There are several factors. For example, average distance travelled by a student and the density of student population in any school are high. This makes it difficult to safeguard against the spread of the infection. While schools can bring in changes in terms of class arrangements, staggered lunch hours, reduction in physical sports, limited social interactions and year-group bubbles, they cannot control what happens outside their premises. But, more than these logistical factors, I would like to draw attention to two other issues.
The school system needs more decentralisation both in terms of governance and planning. Not all decisions need to be taken at the national or state level. Local councils or districts could have chosen to stay open, depending on the spread of the disease, their local needs and capabilities. In fact, we need this flexibility and freedom at the local level not just to keep schools open but, more importantly, to address the damages wrought by the pandemic. Inequality in educational capability has no doubt been exacerbated due to the closure of institutions during the pandemic. So once schools across the country reopen, it cannot be simply teaching as usual. Schools need to reassess the needs of their pupils and do utmost to attend to these.
The other issue has to do with the particular teaching methods that we tend to use. In an interesting study, economists Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc and Andrei Shleifer (2013) show how teaching practices at schools have a sizeable impact on a student’s social capital. They distinguish between the vertical method where the teacher lectures and students take notes and ask questions and the horizontal method where students work in groups and ask questions to each other and the teacher. Obviously, countries as well as schools within a country use both forms but vary in the mix. They show that in societies where the horizontal method is predominant, generalised levels of trust in the society are likely to be higher. Students under the vertical system are also likely to have lower assessments (belief) of the value of cooperation. We now know how trust and cooperation affect the long-term growth of an economy. In India, we are probably more inclined towards the vertical method, where online classes are viewed as close substitutes of classroom experience.
Let me end with an optimistic note. If schools in England could stay open over the last three months or so, with alarming rise in COVID-19 cases all around and a four-week national lockdown, we should be able to bring children back to schools. Now that we are talking about vaccination strategies and candidates for early rounds of vaccination, let us treat schools as part of the essential sector and vaccinate teachers and school workers too.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 18, 2020 under the title ‘Let schools open’. The writer is professor of economics and director, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi.