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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Reopen schools if saving our children’s future is a must

Last week, many states across India permitted schools to open, after keeping children imprisoned at home for nearly two years. Even now, some states are allowing only students of classes 8 to 12 to physically attend school. While almost all schools were shut from March to December 2020, in some states like Odisha, Telangana and West Bengal, elementary schools did not open at all even in 2021. Among major states, even secondary schools still stay shut in Kerala and West Bengal.

These decisions have been disastrous. It may take years before we are able to fully grasp the deep negative impacts that school lockdowns will have on India’s social and economic future.

One, online coaching—at least at its current technological level—cannot compare with physical schooling. A child may find it difficult to focus long enough to learn what is being taught on the screen. At home, there are unavoidable distractions. It is cumbersome to give real-time feedback—say, ask questions or tell the teacher that you haven’t followed what she said. Two, a classroom education is not just about copying down what the teacher writes on a blackboard. It is a community experience where students feed off one another’s energy and responses. One does not go to school only to learn algebra or geography, one also learns to socialize and develops life skills. Online coaching can offer no such lessons, or the absolutely vital emotional connect, whether between teacher and student, or among students.

Three, in India, we still face massive logistical and technical issues. According to a report released by the Union ministry of education in October last year, between 40% and 70% school-going children in seven large states—Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand—do not have access to digital devices at home. They have been, quite simply, abandoned. A large number of them may have by now been forced into the labour force. Even in homes where a digital device is available, power supply and broadband connectivity can be erratic, so learning may be seriously hampered.

Then there is the question of assessment. An Azim Premji University (APU) study in November 2020 found more than 90% teachers to be of the opinion that no meaningful assessment of children’s learning was possible through online classes. There is no sanctity to tests, most board examinations were cancelled, and a few state school boards have passed everyone with a huge number of students getting extraordinarily high marks. This is a travesty, and the children can hardly be blamed for this.

Another January 2021 APU study, of students from classes 2-6, concluded that 92% of children had lost at least one specific language ability from the previous year. These include reading familiar words and writing simple sentences based on a picture. More than 80% lost at least one mathematical ability, like identifying single- and two-digit numbers and using basic arithmetic operations—addition, subtraction—for solving problems. They have regressed. How long will it take them to get up to speed once schools open? At least a few years of studying twice or thrice as hard. Many may never manage to catch up. And the harm that we have done to special children with learning disabilities may already be irreparable.

It’s very strange that malls and cinema halls and bars are open, political rallies and religious festivities are fine, but schools are a no-no. Yet, data shows that children and teenagers are three to six times less likely than an older person to get covid, and hospitalization and fatality rates are extremely low. When states like Haryana, Maharashtra and Punjab opened schools for a few months in July-August last year, there was no spike in the number of cases.

Today, 90% of eligible Indians have had at least one dose of a vaccine, and 70% are double-vaccinated. The severity of covid illness has drastically fallen for those without comorbidities. It is high time we acknowledged that we need to learn to live with the virus and its variants, just as we live with other viruses, including ones with no names.

Policy demands trade-offs, and how we weigh the trade-offs decides our future. Five-year-olds, cooped up at home, are being denied the chance to make any friends—their horizons remain censored, their talents deprived of the space to flower. Ten-year-olds have had their world abruptly shut down and their joys confiscated. Imagine the long-term effects on their mental health and on our society. Surely we owe them a life free of fears?

We should open all schools, with precautions. Mandate that all school staffers should be fully vaccinated. Mandate protocols, though compulsory and constant masking for young children may not be practicable. Decree simple things. Every classroom must have all its windows open. Stagger the classes—half the students can attend school in the morning and half in the afternoon. Stagger the recesses too, within those hours, so that only half of those in school gather at a time for their meals or on the playground. All this is not rocket science. One can see and learn from the experiences and data from many countries that have carried out these strategies successfully.

What governments in India have been doing—and some are continuing to do—to our children for the past two years is deplorable. We have no right to hobble their future chances. They are our future.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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