Saturday, December 9, 2023

Schools reopening- Risk worth taking?

Dr. Duggaraju Srinivasa Rao

The big dilemma of on the decision to open the schools have to be ended on someday and for India, August seems to be the month for the decision to open the schools. There was much discussion at different levels before 10 states and union territories have chosen different dates in August to finally open the schools. It is almost over 18 months India has closed down its educational institutes as measure to save the lives from Covid pandemic. There were many reports of psychological and health impacts on the students because of the newly acquires ‘on line’ teaching culture. Since there was no other option but to utilize the technology despite huge disparity of affordability of this mode of teaching. So much deliberation went on the issue of opening of the academic institutes but none can take the responsibility as lot of risk is involved in the decision.

Finally the opening of the primary schools first was suggested by the ICMR chief Balaram Bharghav for scientific reasons. The medical chief reasoned that “children have lower number of ace receptors to which virus attaches thus making children much better at handling viral infections”. He showed Scandinavian countries as example as the countries in that area have not closed their primary schools even at the height of the pandemic and their decision was proved right as there was no fatalities in that school kid groups.

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO expert also suggested “school opening must be prioritized with strong covid appropriate behaviours specifically avoiding indoor singing, hall gatherings besides the mask wearing, maintain social distances, using hand sanitizers and vaccination of all the adults”. The parliamentary committee on Education have some serious observations about the children’s helath due to covid imposed closure of schools. The panel has strongly advocated the reopening of the schools as the perils of staying home include deteriorating relationships between parents and kids and deep impact on the mental health of them. It is a serious matter as the panel has flagged learning crisis and early child marriages especially in the north Indian states.

All these factors must have impacted the governments of various states to announce the opening of the schools in August. While it is a welcome move the concerned governemnts must first complete the vaccination for all the teachers and other support staff before starting the schools. All the schools must be thoroughly sanitized before the students stepped in and maintain the strict Covid protocols like use of masks, supply of hand sanitizers to schools and kids and also maintaining mandatory social distance with in the premises. The primary target should be not teaching but to make the kids get the feel of freedom, boosting the morale of regaining their joyful age through the atmosphere of the school after almost 18 months forced ‘house arrest’ in the pandemic time. The teachers be asked to use all their skill and maturity in clearing the covid concerns lingering in the minds of the kids and reassure them of their safety both physical and psychologically.  A wise step to tackle the situation would be expediting vaccine availability for those below 18 years age group before kids are allowed to enter the schools. But the question of extending the vaccination drive to those below 18 remains unanswered by the authorities.

Though the ministers in respective states state that they have taken all the needed precautions for the protection of the kids the prospective vulnerability of the students can’t be ignored as the third wave of covid is apparently targeting kids as reported from Kerala. The first wave of Covid didn’t show any fatalities in school age kids and the second wave of covid reported few incidents of younger ones getting the complications related to covid. But the experts warned specific target of third wave on younger ones.

All said and done this is a momentous decision not only for the government but to the parents and it requires lot of mental preparation for taking the risk. It is a simple decision for the minister and officials of the state to reopen the schools but it is decision of the ‘life’ for the parents to send their wards to the school. No parent would like to risk his kid’s life ignoring the covid situation. They will certainly adopt to wait and watch as things unfold and then take risk of sending their wards to school. That confidence boosting methods from the authorities and medical fraternity is needed. Assigning a medical staff to the schools to observe possible symptoms or asymptomatic carriers to the campus and test them and isolate them to save the kids. Teachers of schools these days are rarely staying in the villages where they are posted. Commuting from a faraway place for teachers because of their personal compulsions became a norm in our states. With schools opened the parents and others unconnected with education coming to schools will be seen. The asymptomatic carriers are the source of infections. The periodic checking of visitors and tight rules of restrictions on the movement of strangers around the school may be imposed. The covid tests for teaching and other staff periodically will help in tracking the covid mobility. The ways and means of controlling the student’s interactions in the school and class rooms is not that easy as is opined.

Challenges lie ahead as they states prepare for the opening of the schools as a single unforeseen mistake by any one and one fatality in any school  is likely to receive backlash from parents and society and that will be a biggest challenge for the governments to face. It is hoped the governments are ready with contingency plans for any eventuality including the immediate shut down of the schools much before the political slugfest breakes.

(Author is retired professor and occasional contributor for dailies and magazines on politics and environmental issues. The views expressed are personal opinion of the author. He can be reached at [email protected])

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