No coercion, confidence building measures needed to get children back to school
After bearing the brunt of three waves of COVID, India is finally opening up. The recent decision by nearly all state/UT governments to resume schools amid an ongoing third wave, which likely did not see high death rates compared to the second wave, follows nearly two years of school closures. As parents, we all agree that schools cannot be closed for long periods of time during the pandemic because the loss of learning is enormous. In addition, many experts and studies believe that the physical closure of schools affects the physical, emotional and mental health of children.
However, the recent decision to resume schools from February does not come with enough confidence building measures for parents and students. The academic session, in any case, is coming to an end in a month and although the cases are decreasing, they are still being reported, so the threat of spread and infection is significant. Therefore, as a parent, I am not inspired enough to take this risk, especially when the family has children and elderly people who share a house. The wave of Omicron may have been less ominous according to statistics and government records, but families still lost their loved ones. As a nation, we lost a legend, Lata Mangeshkar, on February 6 to COVID-19.
Although the government has issued standard operating procedures (SOPs) and guidelines for opening schools to ensure low risk, adherence to these SOPs still remains an Achilles heel. We have seen considerable violation of SOPs/guidelines related to the management of COVID-19 by adults, resulting in second and third waves of COVID. This is also demonstrated in the collection of fines for non-compliance with COVID-friendly behavior. Additionally, school classrooms and labs cannot be structurally changed overnight to strictly adhere to social distancing standards when the school is open to 100% attendance.
In Delhi, almost 82% of all children aged 15-18 received the first dose of vaccine. The vaccination campaign for the age group started only a month ago and many children will not be fully vaccinated until mid-March. Therefore, the vulnerability of children aged 15 to 18 remains high, as does that of children under 15 who are not yet eligible for vaccination but will return to school from next week in Delhi. It is also unclear whether school staff and other family members are fully vaccinated. We all know that vaccination coverage is not yet 100% for the adult population. I argue that the vaccination status of teaching/non-teaching staff/parents, students and other family members should be properly communicated by schools to give parents and children a semblance of confidence.
Many organizations, including the United Nations organizations in India, seek information on the vaccination status of employees. But the fact that the government informs the Supreme Court that vaccination is voluntary and not mandatory does not inspire confidence in me about the safety of my child in school among those who may not have been vaccinated. An oft-repeated argument for reopening schools is that parents who go to work (where they come into contact with many people) can bring the virus home. While this is true, but parents generally take the utmost precautions to avoid coming into contact with their children immediately upon returning from work, by following COVID-friendly behavior, including good sanitation practices (like take a bath, disinfect objects that come from outside) and allowing a privileged few to enter their homes, preferably those who have been vaccinated.
Second, the consent forms issued by schools to take offline lessons clearly show the intention of schools to absolve themselves of responsibility by stating that if the child becomes ill or infected, the school or schools cannot be held responsible. It’s enough to shatter my confidence as a parent. SOPs and guidelines alone cannot ensure safety, as we know there are challenges and gaps in implementing these SOPs. There could be a possibility of asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic children coming to school and infecting many others, especially when exams are approaching. Therefore, the timing of the opening of schools with all children in one classroom is fraught with serious repercussions.
When schools reopened last year after the second wave ebbed, many had not restored school transport facilities for pupils. As a result, the responsibility for drop-off and pick-up was left to the parents. Now that schools are reopening in the final month of the academic term, it remains to be seen whether such a facility can be taken over by school carriers.
While we are all encouraged by the decision to reopen schools, I support that the new academic session by the end of March-early April can start in a proper offline mode while the remaining month of this academic session can continue with a hybrid model to slowly and gradually build the confidence of parents and children. Children who want to go to school to dispel their doubts before exams should definitely have the opportunity to attend physical classes to fill in learning gaps before the final exam.
Coercion and intimidation coupled with haste will not lead to good learning outcomes for our children. The right to education can only be realized if the right to life is ensured.
The author is a research associate at Scaling City Institutions for India, Center for Policy Research. She is also the mother of a child who goes to a school in Delhi. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.
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