It is important to reopen schools, but not at the cost of endangering health of students, teachers and parents

Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education has made certain recommendations, but their implementation needs overhauling of school administration and considerable investment

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Dr Gyan Pathak

With the general opinion, both global and domestic, being that schools should now be reopened as soon as possible, India is also gradually trying to open its schools. However, bringing students back safely to schools is in itself a challenging task that is felt both at government and school level. The schools that have already opened are facing an additional difficulty on account of learning loss of students due to closure of schools for about one and half years since the general lockdown of the country. Bridging the learning loss needs specially tailored plans for specific requirements of students.

Some of the states have already reopened schools for higher classes and some even for the primary classes, while the majority of the states are still mulling whether to reopen their schools sometime this month or the next. Though the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has been almost under control for the last two months, the fear of the impending third wave to strike sometime towards end of August or in the beginning of September has inhibited many in the government, the schools, and the parents from supporting the move of opening the schools now.

In NCT of Delhi, for instance, committee of experts has been constituted to evaluate the issue, a decision conveyed to Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA).

This indicates the level of anxiety about how to bring the students safely to schools. Before taking such decisions, governments and schools need much more preparation than they have made till date, and reopening schools without the necessary arrangements would prove disastrous. Therefore, it is imperative for the country to have a high powered committee at the Centre to assist states in safe reopening of schools, and the states in turn needs similar committees to coordinate with the district committees, the district to block level, and the block level to school level committees.

With the Panchayati Raj system in place, the existing school level committees can do their work, or fresh committees can be constituted. At the school level, we have committees that include teachers and parents, which can share the burden of making the schools safe. There should be perfect coordination from the school level to the Centre, so that required information about safety measures travels smoothly from the top to bottom and vice versa.

What the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education has said in its report submitted last week in Parliament is noteworthy in this regard. The suggestions of the panel are wide ranging and their implementation will not be possible without high-powered expert committees at every level, preferably with financial powers to assist safe reopening.

The panel has rightly said that the consequences of keeping schools closed for physical classes are too serious to ignore, because it has not only impacted the learning of the students but also the social fabric of families in a negative way. One such aspect is the increased involvement of students in household chores.

Safety measures are of primary concern. Parents and guardians of students are divided in their opinion – those who are able to take the benefit of online classes are still of the view that schools should wait to reopen, while those who are disadvantaged for various reasons ranging from non-availability of computer systems or mobiles at home to connectivity issues and digital illiteracy are keen for the schools to be reopened, but will all safety protocols in place.

The recommendation of the parliamentary panel should give an idea about the challenges of providing safety, not only to students and teachers, but also the guardians and parents, because the students may carry infection from their home to schools and vice versa.

The panel has recommended “accentuating vaccine programmes for all students, teachers, and allied staff so that schools may start functioning normally at the earliest; holding classes on alternate days or in two shifts to thin out students along with observance of physical distancing and compulsory wearing of face masks at all times; frequent hand sanitization etc; regular thermal screening at the time of attendance and conducting random RT-PCR tests to identify and isolate any infected student, teacher or staff immediately.

Other suggestions made by it are: Each school should have at least two oxygen concentrators with trained personnel to address any eventuality and provide first aid till the availability of outside medical help; frequent surprise inspections of schools may be done by health inspectors and health workers to ensure strict adherence to hygiene and COVID-19 protocols.

All this is easier said than done, because the implementation of these or other recommendations need not only overhauling of the school administration but also considerable investment. Our education system was already reeling under unavailability of funds, and the pandemic has only further exacerbated the situation. Our schools are overcrowded. There is a shortfall of teachers. It is to be seen how they could manage to implement these new responsibilities along with other non-teaching responsibilities that the government entrusts to them. The situation requires much more than the mere decision to reopen schools.

Moreover, when the schools do reopen, teachers will have to face the aberrations that may have already impacted the students’ behaviour and their mental health. As the panel observed, “The closure of schools … has had deep impact on the wellbeing of students, especially their mental health. … The confinement of young children within the four walls of the house, being unable to attend schools, has altered the relationship between the parent and the children adversely.”

“The present situation has exacerbated the learning crisis that existed even before the pandemic with the marginal and vulnerable children adversely affected,” the parliamentary panel said. This is true because the learning gap between the rich and the poor has widened. We need to review online and offline instructions and examination systems and find out exactly what we need to do.

The seriousness of the matter should not be overlooked and a well-balanced reasoned view may be taken for reopening of the schools, the panel has rightly said, that the Centre, the state governments, schools, and parents must heed to.

(IPA Service)

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