The countrywide shutdown of schools to stem the spread of the coronavirus might be drawing to an end, as the Centre okays an in-principle reopening from October 15. The discretion to do so lies, rightly, with the states, who can decide how and at what pace to reopen the classroom. The pandemic has thrown up an impossibly hard choice for schools, children and the wider community of parents and teachers. For nearly eight months now, even the most privileged among them have been able to access only a diminished experience of learning via digital devices. The yawning digital divide has put a vast majority of children, especially the most vulnerable in terms of gender, class and caste, at the risk of being abandoned by the school system. The loss is not just in terms of learning outcomes. The functional school is, among other things, a safety net, preventing students from falling into child marriage or daily-wage labour. The hot mid-day meal served to over 120 million children a day is a defence against child malnutrition.
In this backdrop, it is important that state governments, local administrations and communities have the freedom to decide how best to bring back the children. Cities where coronavirus infections show no sign of abating have to remain cautious, especially given recent research on the capacity of children to spread the virus. In rural areas and districts where the virus had not had a free run, teachers and community leaders are best placed to shape the school experience — whether to bring back the oldest students first, and how many shifts to run. The new classroom that will welcome students back will be a vastly different one. It will be a quieter place, with fewer students, and a regime of social distancing, handwashing and hygiene reinforced through floor drawings and posters. From lunch breaks to the day’s schedule, the school will have to re-imagine ways to create a sense of solidarity, while ensuring distance and safety. The protocols on how to respond in case of an infection and how to transport children safely must be in place before schools can reopen.
The Centre has done well to advise against the rigours of testing, exams and appraisal from the word go, given the long disruption in learning. Teacher initiatives during the lockdown have also proved that a crisis can be used to bypass the rote-learning-exam regime and help children express themselves through writing, plays and games that connect lessons to their life experiences. Just as a decentralised approach will work best in opening up the classroom during a pandemic, the schools must ensure that the process to catch up on lessons and syllabi is stress-free but attuned to the needs of the individual child.
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