The month of August has seen physical schooling restarting in several states of the country. States such as Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Karnataka have reopened schools, mainly for Classes 9 to 12. While some teachers and students are happy to go back to school, many parents are concerned because of the fact that the threat of the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic is looming large.
The debate has been looming large and both sides of the debate have raised valid points on whether or not schools should be reopened.
Online classes have become the norm in the last year and a half and there have been major improvements in the way classes are being conducted online. However, some teachers still believe that online instruction could never replace face to face formal instruction. They also highlight the importance of peer to peer interaction between students which has been lacking during the course of online classes. In view of this, it is also important to note the level of access to online education. The disparity between students from urban areas and rural areas as well as from higher income families and lower income families has become more pronounced in the course of the pandemic. Children from rural areas and lower income households have lesser access to smart devices and online learning. These children lose out on online classes and therefore lag behind in learning as compared to children with access to internet and smart devices.
The state governments as well as a few schools have started YouTube channels and classes on television to ensure more widespread access to education, mainly for students who may not have steady internet access. However, doubt clearing mechanisms and interaction between students and teachers as well as among students is lacking in such a mode of transmission of classes.
However, the fear of the pandemic continues to loom large. Therefore some teachers and parents believe that instead of exposing children to the fear of infection due to the third wave, online teaching should be made more mainstream and fool proof. This is also supported by the fact that there are reports that suggest that children can be carriers of the virus without showing symptoms themselves which could lead to a bigger third wave of cases, as children can be both carriers and transmitters of the virus without their knowledge. The other issue is that increased exposure to screens may have an impact on the eyesight of the children. It could also make them more dependent on devices and more difficult to transition to regular classroom teaching.
In the present circumstances, teachers and educationists believe that while most states have reopened malls and restaurants with restrictions, it is unreasonable that while children can go out and play or meet friends and relatives in their homes and even go out to restaurants to eat out, schools are not allowed to reopen.
A teacher in a CBSE school in Chennai mentioned that feedback from students regarding online classes made it very clear that reopening of physical schools was necessary for the well being of children. Some students indicated that they were uncomfortable switching on their videos without using a background as they did felt that their house was not as fancy as some of the others. Some children were affected by the environment at home, which has become uncomfortable due to increased tension and clashes between parents as a result of the lockdown.
She added that the fear of the third wave affecting children appears to have been a bit overstated, as the second wave itself saw a lot of children being affected by Covid, but also successfully recovering from it. She also referred to WHO’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Sowmya Swaminathan’s opinion that India may be entering a stage of endemicity for Covid, which means the population learns to live with it. When her school was considering starting physical classes for the senior classes in January, many parents wrote to the school administration expressing their discomfort at sending their children to school in the middle of the pandemic. However, with schools in Tamil Nadu set to reopen in the first week of September for classes 9 to 12, hardly any parents have objected to the same now. Children are waiting to break free of the monotony of sitting in the same chair and the same position everyday and are looking forward to attending school and meeting friends, even while following Covid regulations.
She said that most schools were making changes to their classrooms and school timings in order to be able to adhere to Covid regulations of social distancing. Schools are investing in new furniture to avoid students having to share benches and desks and are working towards making classrooms more ventilated. Most schools are adopting staggered timings where students of each class would attend classes either in two different shifts or on alternate days. Many schools have made it mandatory for students to carry extra masks with them at all times. They have also made masks and sanitizers available within school premises. Students have also been advised not to share food with each other. Thus, in her opinion, reopening of schools while sticking to regulations will be beneficial for the children.
In light of the same and considering global experiences, it can be inferred that reopening schools with proper safeguards will keep the children and staff of school safe from the threat of the virus. Schools can begin with 50% of the students attending school on alternate days and the other half attending it on the other days. This can help maintain social distancing. Classrooms must be well ventilated. All teaching and non-teaching staff must be fully vaccinated. Mask discipline must be followed at all times.
An year and a half after the onset of the pandemic, it is about time that we started inching towards some semblance of normalcy, and for children, normalcy begins with restarting of physical schooling.