Written by Saswati Bhattacharya
It was distressing to read reports about the Delhi government’s decision in July to continue with school closures. There is no dearth of effort to open/plan for opening almost all other indoor public spaces like pubs, restaurants, gyms, cinema halls and malls. But when it comes to plans for school reopening, we are unreasonably cautious to protect children, even arguing that “schools should reopen once everyone is vaccinated”. How do we decide this “everyone”? Does it mean all adults in Delhi, or India, or, is it all school-going children and adults within Delhi-NCR? In a situation where there is an intermittent snag in vaccine availability, continuous movement of populations, both white-collar and migrant workers, when and how do we decide on “this everyone”? Is it not an unrealistic goal leading to an endless wait?
As per UNESCO data, India is one among 4-5 countries where schools have remained closed for the longest time since March 2020 – for about 60 weeks. Simultaneously, UNICEF is constantly urging governments to not spare any effort to keep schools open or prioritise them in reopening plans. The data published as to the severe effect of online schooling in terms of accessibility and learning disabilities and the critical childhood needs that are unmet because of Covid is alarming.
Interestingly enough, in Delhi, the government has been extremely lethargic about even discussing the possibility of school reopening, though in neighbouring states schools did open in January-February 2021 across classes. In Delhi, the comments and speculations, both by the state government and parents, also reflect that the restoration of normal schooling for our children is of the least priority. By a continuous closure of schools for primary and middle school students, we are depriving our children of their right to holistic education, and adding to their mental distress and sense of deprivation. According to experts, the increasingly visible tendencies of depression among the young is a matter of concern.
When it comes to education, we have adopted an exam-centric approach. So we opened schools for classes that were to appear for board exams and because it was ill-planned, it was bound to fail in the face of a third wave.
Education is not simply about exams and marks, neither is school simply about learning from books. Students learn social skills, leadership and team building, inculcate lifelong friendships, handle problems and crises, understand diversity, learn from their role models, peers and beloved teachers who also take care of their mental and emotional needs.
Realistically, Covid-19 will not disappear in the immediate future — there will only be peaks and troughs in the rate of infections. Even two doses of vaccines may not be enough to provide permanent protection and therefore, vaccination itself may be an ongoing process. Are we suggesting that our children just sit at home and keep adjusting to this “new normal”? Why should we force them to accept the “pathological” teaching-learning model as “normal”? It is not simply a matter of accessibility of technology but of depriving children of their potential learning capability, their normal childhood experiences, adding to their mental agony.
A year later, most parents (read mothers) are unduly burdened, juggling professional work, household chores and childcare. Parents with children in middle school and high school are finding it tough to handle their mental health issues.
Instead of taking them for vacations in tourist spots, family marriages and shopping malls, let our children go to school, interact with their peers. They have been disciplined enough, learning Covid-related protocols for more than a year. We, as parents, must come out of this paranoia that all ills (read Covid) lie within the school premises, given that experts like Dr Randeep Guleria of AIIMS are also suggesting that we must plan to reopen schools in a staggered way.
Here are some suggestions on how to do so.
All staff members must be vaccinated – schools can collect data from their staff (teaching and non-teaching) on the number of people left to be vaccinated and they may be prioritised for vaccination. Many countries have identified teachers as frontline workers and ensured early vaccination for them — we can still adopt that policy.
All schools should have a sanitisation tunnel at entry points. The DOE may make this installation mandatory for schools. Private schools with fewer funds may ask the government to subsidise this cost.
For students travelling in school buses, the bus attendant should check the temperature before the child boards the bus.
For the first week at least, school hours may be reduced to 4-4.5 hours so as to limit exposure. Already, under the reduced screen time, they are doing minimal school hours.
Instead of the entire strength of students attending physical classes, we may ask only half the class to come one day and the rest to continue online by direct transmission and vice versa. For example, in Week 1, Roll No 1-20 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and Roll No 11-40 on Tuesday and Thursday, which will be reversed on Week 2.
For the first couple of months, to control the possibility of the infection spreading, students may be asked to come physically only for one week a month.
The quality of teaching-learning will be immensely improved if the students are allowed even minimum physical contact hours. They will have an incentive to study as their mental health improves once they have their peers and beloved teachers around them.
The writer teaches Sociology in a Delhi University constituent college. Views are personal