A government-run school in Gurugram after authorities asked schools to reopen voluntarily for classes 9 to 12, October 15 (Photo: Reuters)
Earlier in November, less than a fortnight after Haryana began to reopen its schools, a small government one in a distant part of the state began to report Covid-19 cases. Only between 120 to 160 students from Classes 9 and 12 had returned to the Government Senior Secondary School in Rewari’s Kund village, but of the 35 tested for Covid, as many as 19 results returned positive. The worst had come true. But this was not the only case. More than 150 students from Jhajjar, Jind and Rewari districts had tested positive, most of them asymptomatic, within a fortnight of these schools being reopened, according to media reports. These affected schools were understandably closed down.
Several states, such as Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Goa, have reopened for the senior classes. Maharashtra earlier planned to reopen schools across the state on November 23rd, but some cities like Mumbai and Thane, just days before the deadline, decided to stay shut till the end of the year. As various states across the country begin to reopen schools—or at least consider the idea—instances like in Haryana, especially when safety measures are lax, are expected to not be uncommon. Some cases will inevitably rise. But should such news lead to schools continuing to remain closed elsewhere? Nearly nine months have passed since schools first shut down, but while much of everything else has been unlocked, very few parents, school administrators and local governments seem willing to reopen them.
Is it time now to shift the conversation from the danger of opening schools to the risk of continuing to keep them closed? Can we begin to consider the notion of learning to live with the virus, even inside our schools? Or do we just forego all risks and keep our kids secure at home?
Lopamudra Achuthan, a mother of two sons in Mumbai, one in Class 6 and another in 8, received a questionnaire from the school her sons go to a few days ago. Private schools across Indian cities have been sending out such surveys to seek parents’ views over how they should navigate through the pandemic. The survey had a single question and three options. Should the school reopen in the first week of January, the first week of February, or until a vaccine becomes available? Achuthan ticked the earliest option available—January. And although the survey’s results aren’t out yet, she knows, she says, that most parents chose to wait it out until a vaccine became available.
“I don’t understand it,” she says. “We must all learn to live with the virus, even our kids. Most of the parents, I know, are allowing their children to visit malls, to go on small vacations here and there, but the moment the talk of reopening of schools starts, they just freeze.” According to her, while most parents are satisfied with the current online mode of education, nothing beats a classroom environment for children. “We have this odd situation where the parents (of even children who will appear for their board exams next year) are saying, they care more for their children than their marks. They are willing to lose a (school) year if need be,” she says. She does not rule out a time when there may be clashes between parents over when schools should reopen. A vaccine, as she points out, is still a long way off. Even when it becomes available, as some guess sometime next year, it will come in batches. Children, who have been known to be the least vulnerable, will probably not feature among the first few groups to receive it.
Achuthan is an outlier. The parents of most children going to premier schools, one finds, do not want them to restart anytime soon. “I think the safety of children comes first. No doubt about it,” says Madhu Jain, the principal of Billabong High International School in Mumbai’s Malad area. “I think we have managed to be quite successful in moving to an online model. So we will wait for the guidelines of the government, whenever they come out, and always make children’s safety paramount.”
Despite these concerns, most studies have found no link between the reopening of schools and a surge in Covid-19 cases. One study which looked at the reopening of schools in different regions of Spain found that while in one region cases dropped three weeks after schools reopened, in others they continued to rise at the same rate as before, and one stayed entirely flat. Spain was already going through a second wave of cases by the time the schools reopened in September. Of the students and staff who did test positive, 87 per cent of them did not infect anyone else at the school. Enric Álvarez at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, who authored the study, told NPR, ‘What we found is that the school [being opened] makes absolutely no difference.’
Another research, conducted by the Insights for Education foundation which analysed the reopening of schools and coronavirus trends from February to the end of September across 191 countries, also found no evidence to support the fear that restarting schools leads to a surge in cases. Some countries, such as Vietnam and Gambia, saw cases rising during the summer break and dropping when they reopened. Others, like Japan, saw cases rise and fall while schools stayed open. In some countries, like South Africa and Thailand, where schools were opened when cases were low, there was no impact on transmission. Some, like the UK, saw a strong upward trend around the time schools reopened. According to this research paper, nearly half of the world’s primary and secondary students will not attend school this year, an estimated 84 per cent of whom will come from lower-income countries.
Reopening schools in India will come with its own challenges. Children may belong to the least vulnerable category, but many of them live in large joint families in India, and a child can potentially carry the disease with him or her to their house where old grandparents and vulnerable
relatives may live
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Reopening schools in India will of course come with its own challenges. Children may belong to the least vulnerable category, but many of them live in large joint families in India, and a child can potentially carry the disease with him or her to their house where old grandparents and vulnerable relatives may live.
I think as much as the students, many parents long to have the kids sent back to school,” says Sudeshna Chatterjee, the principal of EuroSchool in Navi Mumbai’s Airoli area, with a laugh. “But there is no need to hurry. We have to wait for (the state’s) guidelines…Besides, we have been very successful in moving classes online.”
Her school hasn’t just moved classes online but also most of its extra-curricular subjects. There are online yoga, music and dance classes, an online library, apart from online clubs such as astronomy. “We’ve been very efficient this way. Except for sport, which has suffered everywhere because of the pandemic, everything else we’ve managed to take online,” she says.
Chatterjee’s school of course represents the cream. It is part of a sliver of India’s unequal education system. And the pandemic has made that system even more unequal. When some premier schools like EuroSchool began to put together plans for a reopening at some point—reimagining the classroom, putting just single desks for each child, stocking up the infirmary, keeping an isolation room ready just in case, putting up sanitation booths, floor markings to ensure social distancing and signing up firms for the sanitation of schools—other government schools in the same city struggled as teachers chipped in to procure just a few hand sanitisers.
“I think it’s time we looked at how we can go about reopening schools,” says Saurabh Taneja, the Pune-based CEO of Akanksha Foundation, a non-profit education organisation. Akanksha Foundation uses a public-private partnership model to run 21 schools across Pune and Mumbai. These are government schools using pre-existing government facilities, but where the staff is trained and provided by the foundation. According to Taneja, the pandemic has struck a terrifying blow to education in government schools. While premier schools have had a smooth transition to this new model of education, in many government schools, such a transition has simply not taken place. He points to reports, in other government schools, where students appear to have vanished since they aren’t in touch with their schools anymore.
During the early months of the lockdown, about 89 per cent of the Akanksha school students had a smartphone or some device by which they could participate in lessons. But this changed once the lockdown was lifted, and the parents, to whom these devices belonged, had to venture out. “So we had to do lessons at odd hours, like at 5AM before the parent headed out, or at 9PM, once he had returned,” Taneja says. The foundation has since procured around 1,500 tablets for its students in senior classes, and are in the process of procuring another 1,000. “We have been getting better responses with these,” he says.
Every class is also a humbling experience. Every time the mike is unmuted for a child to speak, a rush of noise—of TVs and radio sets blaring, of people crammed into a single room, and people walking in and out—reminds the teacher just how difficult education has become in this period. The dedicated are slogging through, but for the less self-driven, who have already begun to step out to help their parents in their jobs, it is very easy to fall off the radar.
Some public schools, such as the ones run by Akanksha Foundation, had already begun to prepare for a reopening. Taneja describes how they set up a taskforce preparing a plan for how schools could be made to operate in a safe manner. Although he found the November 23rd deadline set by Maharashtra as unreasonable, given as it came right after Diwali and a possible surge and gave the schools very little time to prepare, he was planning for a reopening sometime in the first week of December. Somewhere between 80 to 95 per cent of parents in the schools they run too, he claims, were in favour of such a reopening.
“When you look at the evidence around the world, you can see that closing schools down doesn’t help in any way,” he says.
Far away from Maharashtra, in the area in and around Darjeeling in West Bengal, elite boarding schools that attracted students from distant places in India and nearby countries now stand in isolated silence. Most classes have moved online, but many schools are struggling. One school, Dr. Graham’s Homes, set up over 200 years ago and which stretches over 100 acres of land, is in a financial mess, according to local news, especially after the pandemic, with many students not having cleared their dues.
Elsewhere in the same area, a woman in a government school in this area sits in front of an electric heater, preparing a question paper for the final examination before winter. In another time, rows of students would have been hunching over their desks, preparing for these exams. But this year has been different. The only activity the school has seen in the last few months is when parents show up to collect the allotted foodgrains in the children’s midday meals.
The teacher shows a WhatsApp group message, where she has been recording audio lessons for a small group of students. Months have passed without any response. “I don’t know if they even listen to it,” she says.
The examination paper in front of her is scribbled with questions for students in junior classes. “Parents are supposed to pick up these question papers and have their children fill them in. God knows if the kids are going to do it seriously, or if the parents will even show up,” she says.