Reopening a dilemma!

Though State government appears firm on restarting schools, parents and school managements are not sure if they could cope with the situation amidst COVID-19 safety protocol demands and impending third wave threat

It’s been 18 months since the outbreak of COVID-19 and children have been out of school due to the prevailing pandemic. Different States have been trying out different models to make up for the lost academic time, but there is no uniform policy on when schools should reopen due to varying local conditions in terms of intensity of the COVID-19 wave.

But how long can we keep children away from schools? Experts have raised serious concern citing losses that children will incur from not being in school and they fear that it may never be recouped. Citing the current learning loss, mental distress, missed school-based meals and reduced social skills, they caution about its adverse impact on the young ones’ physical and mental health besides low or no social engagement.

The State government’s decision to reopen schools from August 16 and run all classes at regular timings has evoked mixed reactions from stakeholders. The Education Minister Adimulapu Suresh has made it categorical that classes would commence on the stipulated date amidst strict adherence to COVID-19 protocol and that nobody would be allowed to conduct online classes any more.

Parents worried

But a major chunk of parents want their children to be vaccinated first before sending them to school. The fear of COVID pandemic is very much alive in their minds and they don’t want to take any chances, especially in the wake of the reports of an impending third wave. “I am not ready to send my children to school. If the situation demands, I would rather opt for home-schooling, which I have been doing for some time now,” says Swati Sanyal Tarafdar, a mother of two school-going children. “We know that there is a third wave and the number of cases is increasing. What is the logic of throwing schools open at this juncture?” she wonders, citing poor compliance of COVID guidelines even among educated people, which, she says, is adding to parents’ fears.

Soujanya Gopisetti wants to wait and watch the situation for a while. “Not immediately,” she says when asked if she would send her two children to school. Mamatha Gedupuri is worried for the health of her daughter Snikitha, a Class VIII student. “There is no vaccine for children yet and I can’t take such a high risk,” she says. Narasimha Rao, a father of two primary schoolchildren, says there should be fluidity. “Should the cases go up, schools should shut down immediately.”

However, there are a few parents willing to send their children depending on local conditions and there are others who are indecisive as they do not have a clear view of the situation.

The once bustling school campuses have turned into dead spaces. There are also views that there will always be, for some more time, a certain percentage of parents not willing to send their children to school. The authorities should continue with the hybrid model of learning and that school managements should figure out how to go about it, depending on their resources. “Since waiting for vaccines may take a very long time, schools should be run by strictly observing COVID-19 protocol,” opines D. Madhusudana Rao, former adviser, Education Department. Talking about challenges, he says educating people on the need to follow COVID-appropriate behaviour is the key. “Online classes do not serve the purpose,” he says, citing the issue of digital divide, a major drawback that prevents the school authorities from reaching out to all sections. “Teachers should also be given proper training in conducting virtual classes,” he says.

Confusion among managements

Meanwhile, the government’s decision to start schools for all children in one go has led to confusion among school managements who argue that it will be impossible to accommodate all students in the existing classrooms and implement social distancing. “Even if I split the children in a classroom into two groups, where do I get the additional teachers from?” asks a representative of a school management. Drifting from its earlier stand that hybrid model is the most suitable way to reach out to students as long as the pandemic is around, the Minister’s announcement that only offline classes will be conducted from now has added to their confusion.

After vaccinating all teachers, the government should think of conducting offline classes on alternate days, says the director of a corporate school. He also feels that after being away from school for so long, not many children will want to attend full-day school and a gradual shift from half days to full working days is advisable.

Now that it is clear that we will have to live with the virus for years, it is for the government to put in place a strong safety net and vaccinate all teachers and parents and create an ecosystem of safety.

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