The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown India's education system into turmoil. Schools and colleges were all shut down by April 2020 to reduce transmission of the virus. While countries across the globe are at different points of the pandemic's progress, the question of reopening educational institutes remains at the forefront for all of them.
According to data released by UNICEF in March 2021, it has been almost a year since schools for 168 million children have been shut on a global level, leading to disastrous repercussions to their wellbeing and education. This has also increased the inequalities suffered by underprivileged children, and heightened the risk of such kids never returning to school.
In India, the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns led to the closure of about 1.5 million schools in 2020, and has thus affected over 247 million children. Schools not only provide education, but also access to food, health, a social life, and a support system, which have been cut off from children ever since schools have shut down. Besides this, online education is not a feasible option for many children and only one in four have access to internet connection and digital devices.
Thus, it can be said that the consequences of school closures include –
Disrupted learning and fluctuating academic progress.
Poor nutrition due to inaccessibility to meal schemes.
Mental issues including confusion and stress for parents, students, teachers, and school management.
Numerous challenges in online learning and home schooling.
High economic burden for parents and teachers.
The Centre, state, and district authorities need to weigh all the factors involved when it comes to taking a decision regarding the reopening of educational institutes. Such a decision can only be taken by comparing the health risks of reopening against the risks of not providing in-person classes to students.
Online education can only be seen as a short-term solution. As already mentioned, one major drawback to this is the lack of access to online learning by a large number of school-going children. Besides this, online learning results in a host of health issues, both physical and mental, due to the drastic increase in screen-time, the lack of movement and physical interaction, and the loss of interest and motivation.
With regard to the health risks, there is now such an influx of contradictory research and resources, which, along with widespread misinformation, makes it difficult to truly understand the actual consequences of reopening schools. Initially, it was found that children were at a lower risk of infection from the virus. A more recent survey by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and AIIMS found that children below 18 have developed antibodies against the virus and may not be impacted by the third-wave. On the other hands, other reports have found that the newer mutations of the virus are affecting children and even fully vaccinated adults. Due to this lack of clarity, most parents are hesitant to send their children anywhere outside, especially to a crowded place such as a school.
Clearly, there is a gap in research on the transmission of the virus by children, and the results of transmission of COVID by reopening educational institutes at present times. Thus, a procedure to monitor and track the progress of the virus is required, along with expert knowledge of public health and infectious diseases. The decision needs to be taken on the basis of proper and updated research and surveys.
The return to classrooms, especially for elementary students, will require a robust system to support them as they readjust to in-person classes and catch up on the curriculum. UNICEF, along with UNESCO, UNHCR, WFP, and the World Bank, have issued a "Framework for Reopening Schools", which offers advice to central and local authorities for such an undertaking. This has been adapted to fit the Indian scenario, with the "Students' Learning Enhancement Guidelines" drafted by the NCERT and finalized by the Ministry of Education.
Action plans must be created to tackle the immediate challenges, without forgetting the long-term strategies. A report by the Lancet COVID-19 Commission in India covers this topic- which includes the assessment of the negative impacts of school closures- and reviews the available data to understand if schools can be safely opened. It also lists various recommendations, including but not limited to –
Vaccination of all school teachers and staff on a priority basis before opening up the schools.
Back-up protocols to deal with any sudden COVID cases among the school staff, including teachers and administrators.
Adherence to Government SOPs, which include social distancing, masking, and frequent sanitization.
Ventilation of all indoor spaces such as classrooms and buses, and limitation of indoor group activities.
Provisions of regular testing on-site.
Besides these precautions to be taken with regard to the immediate threat of infection, efforts should also be made to build-up the education sector by compensating for educational and nutritional losses that have been faced by students during school closures. There should be a robust tracking mechanism to monitor the progress of schools and students on, both, safety and education.
The reopening of schools presents a large number of challenges for the school management, including that of implementing distancing and wearing of masks. The school's planning must include the following –
The fixing of entry and exit points.
The appointing of staff and procurement of materials for thermal checking and sanitization at the entry points.
The seating arrangements in classrooms, buses, and other such areas in keeping with social distancing rules.
The appointing of staff to monitor the students in order to ensure that the rules are being followed.
All of these new steps have to be undertaken alongside the existing academic commitments. Besides this, there will also be an increase in academic duties as the teachers will need to monitor the students' learning progress, and devise ways of enabling those students who have fallen behind to catch up with the curriculum, along with maintaining online classes for those children who are unable to attend in-person classes, all the while wearing a mask through it all.
The rush to close schools and colleges across the country due to the pandemic was done with no framework in place regarding ensuring continuity of education, or to plan for reopening of educational institutions. This has led to the current complex questions of whether to reopen schools and colleges, and how to do so in a safe manner.
It is definite that a uniform, 'one size fits all' formula cannot be the way to proceed, since this will be impossible in a country like India, with vastly differing socio-economic conditions and topography. The different authorities at all levels need to find a way to work effectively in harmony. Collaborative efforts by all the stake-holders such as the school management, the teachers, the parents, the governments and other authorities, and the students, is necessary to prepare for the reopening of schools in a post-pandemic era.
Founder & Consultant - School Serv
Vinod Kakumanu heads a team of school services professionals and is an independent commentator on Indian school education scenario. Vinod has assisted school promoters establish 35+ schools besides providing ancillary services to over 1000 schools across India. He envisions a future where quality education is made available to every child of the country. The focus he places on the quality of the deliverables and customer satisfaction has made him renowned in the field of K-12 school education.