Why It’s Important To Open Schools Now And How States Can Do It Safely

Why It’s Important To Open Schools Now And How States Can Do It Safely(Flickr)
Snapshot
  • We can’t keep schools locked down forever. This is going to have serious implications for the quality of our human resource.

    Here are five measures which states must take to enable immediate reopening of schools.

Schools in India have been closed since 25 March last year when the nation-wide lockdown came into force to contain the spread of Covid-19 in India. They had barely returned to normalcy after the fear of first wave subsided that the second wave forced States to shut them down again.

Given that the latter was more devastating, there is stronger resistance even now to send children back to classrooms, especially due to the fear of the third wave that can be potentially more harmful to this demographic which has thankfully remained mostly unaffected over the past year-and-a-half.

The online schooling industry has boomed during this time with Indian ed-tech startups attracting over Rs 30,000 crores of investment and four of them becoming unicorns (valued at $1 billion). While e-learning has contributed greatly in preventing a total washout of school education during Covid-19 crisis, experience so far shows that it’s simply not the same as in-person schooling.

Those tech enthusiasts who had predicted that online learning will completely replace the good old brick-and-mortar schools en masse are now slowly coming to the conclusion that the former can only supplement the latter and we would be better off with a hybrid model rather than fantasising about a utopia of cloud schools.

Maybe the technology in future becomes significantly more advanced providing immersive experience and enhancing the overall feel, but if there is anything this pandemic has taught us, it’s the acute importance of social one-to-one, in-person interactions. This is more true for children who are just beginning to start their journey in this world and there seems to be nothing more dangerous for society than raising a whole generation of kids who aren’t social animals.

And one isn’t even talking about the students belonging to poor backgrounds and living in smaller towns or villages. These are the biggest victims of this forced shift from offline to online learning. Despite impressive gains made by India in smartphone penetration in the last five years, there is huge gap in quantity and quality of devices owned by families in tier-1 cities and towns or villages.

The schools these students from disadvantage sections attend are either government-run or budget private institutions which don’t have the wherewithal to invest in their teachers or students to go online. Nor are their parents educated enough to home-school them. The potential for upward mobility of these students has been severely hampered and this is bound to reflect in learning outcomes which will worsen and eventually result in these kids falling behind in higher classes and losing out on chance of getting into good higher education institutions.

India has made impressive gains of late in school education. Coverage of schools with electricity has increased from 55 per cent in 2013 to 84 per cent in 2020. In the same period, girls' toilet have been made available in 97 per of the schools, up from 89 per cent. The pupil-teacher ratio has improved from 34 to 26 in primary schools, 23 to 18 in upper-primary, 30 to 18 in secondary and 39 to 26 in higher secondary schools. Gross enrolment ration of girls in higher education has increased from 39 to 52.

But Covid-19 pandemic has hit the school sector hard. Reports of students shifting from quality private schools to government ones across states abound, reversing the healthy trend of the last decade. As do reports of increased child marriages of girls, child labour and falling learning outcomes (as reflected in a recent survey). The gains made in recent years stand to be frittered away.

Clearly, there is a strong case for reopening schools as soon as possible. From the Covid-19 point of view also, the evidence so far suggests that children are least vulnerable to the risk of hospitalisation from the disease, in a stark contrast to other respiratory viral infections.

The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that people younger than 18 years have accounted for less than two per cent of the hospitalisations due to COVID-19 from March 2020 to August 2021 and this also includes data from the Delta variant-induced third wave which is wreaking havoc there, especially among the unvaccinated. This, when majority of schools are open, partially or fully, in the US for past few months.

One study in the US found that the percentage of children hospitalised with severe disease had not changed even after the Delta variant became predominant.

All this should force a rethink on the strategy of closing down schools before anything else when cases rise and opening them last, much after the cases have declined.

Of course, given that there are kids involved and there is always a risk of a more infectious and deadly variant emerging, opening schools must come with stern terms and conditions.

First, States need to ensure that if any school wishes to start offline classes, it must have its whole staff, teaching or non-teaching, fully vaccinated.

Second, States need to mandate for schools to ensure that all the family members of the children coming to schools are vaccinated, at least partially, if not fully. This would protect the family members who are more vulnerable to hospitalisation due to Covid-19.

Third, there needs to be social distancing and masking in classrooms. For instance, one set of students can come for half week and the other half in the rest. And those sitting at home should be allowed to attend the classes online. This is the right time to adapt the hybrid model. This can continue till the vaccination for children starts.

Fourth, schools must be made to test students with rapid antigen tests en masse or distribute kits to families so that parents can test their wards before sending them to schools.

The local administration/NGOs/state governments all need to come together to ensure that schools alone are not burdened with the costs of buying these tests. With 50 per cent of the children attending classes on any particular day, as suggested in the preceding point, the costs can be easily managed. In fact, all offices, factories, businesses, etc., should follow this model until we have 80-90 per cent of fully vaccinated population.

Unfortunately, we have opened up everything without proper measures like these, repeating the same mistake and hoping to get lucky this time.

Fifth, schools should be encouraged to minimise the risk by conducting classes in the open as much as possible. With winters coming, it should become easier.

We can’t keep schools locked down forever. This is going to have serious long-term negative impact on the quality of our human resource thereby putting the probability of reaping the so-called demographic dividend in question. Those from poorer backgrounds stand to lose the most. It’s time to open schools. But safely.

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