Written by Achalika Ahuja
It’s been over 500 days since the doors of schools closed due to the pandemic, and India’s future generation continues to float in uncertainty. By now, everyone is aware that the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of children is at stake due to pandemic-induced hindrances in education. Despite the many challenges and social issues that have arisen from school closures, full-fledged reopening of schools continues to be a distant reality. Those advocating for reopening schools are doing so on the basis of ensuring the wellbeing of children (with respect to educational gains, nutrition, mental health, and socio-emotional learning opportunities), while the naysayers are of the opinion that the decision to reopen educational institutes must be taken after vaccinating all the children and school staff. Ultimately, the question on everyone’s mind is — should the vaccination of children have a bearing on reopening schools, and if yes, what are the prospects of vaccinating 472 million children in India?
Several individuals and organisations have already started a meaningful conversation around vaccinating children, where everyone from doctors to concerned parents has weighed in with their thoughts.
One of the most common points raised during these discussions is whether children are more likely to be asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus variants, and the risk involved in reopening schools in such a scenario. “According to the available data, kids fall into 10-12 per cent of the risk bucket if infected, whether symptomatic or asymptomatic. Generally, the risk of severe Covid infection and hospitalisation is far less in kids than adults. The benefit-to-risk ratio suggests that vaccines are going to play a major role in immunising this population and the risks are manageable or can be mitigated with adequate measures in order to reopen schools,” explains Dr. S G Kasi, Vice President, Indian Academy of Pediatricians (National Respiratory Chapter).
Aspects like which group of educational institutes should prioritise reopening measures, and who they must vaccinate first have also been widely discussed. Several NGOs, civil society organisations, and experts like ICMR Chief Balram Bhargava have already been suggesting to the GOI that reopening primary schools first makes more sense, but states are currently focusing on reopening schools at limited capacity for higher grades only. This is presumably because older students are more likely to follow Covid appropriate behaviour than younger ones. However, this approach needs to be reconsidered, at least in the case of the government schools, as “it is the younger students who are suffering more due to the impaired social-emotional learnings and lack of access to nutritional safety nets in the foundational years of development due to school closures,” according to Dr. Jagdish Chinnappa, Pediatric Cluster Head of Manipal Hospitals.
Since government schools have the responsibility of delivering education as well as social justice to ensure that children from vulnerable backgrounds don’t fall behind due to the socio-economic divide, they must focus on reopening on priority. Their indispensable role in implementing GOI welfare schemes, such as mid-day meals which provide health and nutrition safety nets, also strengthens the case for reopening them.
When it comes to vaccination drives for children, prioritising groups of children based on their vulnerabilities is key. Children with co-morbidities like chronic cardiac diseases, lung diseases and immunological deficiencies, as well as those from severely malnourished groups must get vaccinated in the first phase. Even as we work towards organising vaccination drives for children as part of the larger movement towards a fully immunised population, reopening educational institutions cannot be a function of this, as we could end up waiting for years.
It is critical to adopt safety measures to prevent outbreaks and transmission of Covid among children, by setting up standard operating procedures and protocols in schools. A few states and Union territories are partially opening schools in India starting September 1. To ensure that children are safe and schools do not become centres of transmission, robust testing is a key mitigation measure. Testing is a very important part of surveillance, and schools, especially private institutions, can definitely invest in self-testing kits to gauge disease prevalence inside the premises. Additional safety measures can be ensured by fully vaccinating all school staff, only reopening schools in regions where the local caseload has been consistently low, and having robust protocols in place to handle positive cases and efficient contact tracing measures.
Evaluating all the aforementioned aspects and arriving at implementable solutions must not take place in silos anymore. States, policymakers, NGOs, school authorities, and parent bodies must come to a consensus and work together because vaccinating children and reopening schools are no longer mutually exclusive areas of concern. Currently, the Health and Education Ministry advisories are being issued separately, but it is imperative for all the concerned stakeholders to arrive at a decision on the same table for rolling out cohesive guidelines and next steps. These activities need to occur in tandem for children’s lives to return to normalcy, and thus, community engagement and active citizenship will play a large role in the months to come.
As India’s vaccination drives continue to progress, it would benefit the country’s citizens if courage and data-driven decision-making superseded fear and misinformation. Even amidst talks of an incoming third Covid-19 wave, we must not forget that as a community, our duty lies in taking steps that are in the best interest of our children.
The writer is consultant — organisational development, Indus Action