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Home / Opinion / Views /  We need a reopening plan for our schools soon

In March last year, India’s central government ordered the immediate closure of schools in an attempt to protect our children and reduce the transmission of the covid virus. At Teach For India, as in many other educational institutions, we moved to the only option we had: ‘online classes’—an option that is far from ideal. The Lancet Covid-19 Commission India Task Force noted that only 24% of Indian households have access to internet facilities.

At Teach For India, we raised funds for devices; WhatsApp groups were set up, teachers upskilled themselves to teach online and even came up with creative offline methods of teaching, such as classes commencing on phone calls, the printing and distribution of learning packets in person, and radio learning. But it was not a very effective way of teaching our children.

Online learning possibly works better in high-end private schools, where each child has a sophisticated device and learning can be supplemented by parents. But for the majority of our underprivileged children, this does not work. We need to take into account the consequences of losing 15 months of school for an entire generation of children—250 million to be exact.

Unesco estimates that our children have lost two months for every month they haven’t attended school: that’s approximately 30 months of learning loss already. The children who are already at a disadvantage under normal circumstances are bound to suffer a huge handicap. Although we may not be in a position to reopen schools right away, we need to start engaging in a dialogue, so that we are prepared to open schools when it is safe to do so.

As of June 2021, 90% of the world’s countries operated schools in some capacity, while in India, schools remained shut. Fortunately, there is a plethora of research on how schools can be opened responsibly while curtailing the chances of contracting the virus. An extensive study by SRCC Children’s Hospital, Mumbai, has presented robust guidelines on how schools can start this process.

The Lancet Task Force has noted relatively little impact of schools reopening on population-wide transmission rates. There is a fear that a possible third wave will affect children the most, but interim findings of a World Health Organization-All India Institute of Medical Sciences study says that it will not affect children any more than other age groups. In any case, nobody can say with any certainty that there will be a third wave, and if there is, who it will affect the most.

We need to realize that moving back to in-person learning in all likelihood is our only chance at undoing what seems to be years of instructional loss. Research studies and experts in education and medicine tell us that it can be done. For the sake of the well-being and the future of our kids, can we start the complex process of preparing to reopen our schools by putting safety precautions in place and alleviating parental fears? This would ensure that when schools reopen, they do so as safely as possible. In India, while the effects of the pandemic on the educational sector have been severe, especially for municipal and under-resourced schools, we must acknowledge that our system was failing the majority of our children even before covid.

The facts and numbers are daunting. Over 50 million of our primary school children were not attaining foundational literacy and numeracy (MHRD). More than 46% of students in grade 8 could not read and understand short text; 62% could not use basic math to solve daily life problems (NEP, 2020) and only 26% of students who started school actually made it to college(AISHE, 2019-20). Now, if we take into consideration what children have been experiencing as a result of the pandemic—fear, anxiety, stress, isolation and boredom—the problem at hand seems to increase tenfold. One-third of primary and half of secondary students have parents reporting that their child’s mental and socio-emotional health has been compromised since May 2020 (Unicef India). The Childline helpline number 1098 saw a 50% increase in call volumes in 2020, with 460,000 calls in 21 days pleading for protection. Of these, 6,355 calls related to child marriages.

All of this, coupled with the learning loss that our children have suffered, projects a grim reality for the future. This has been a very challenging time for children and everyone in the education sector. More than 80% of teachers have found it difficult to maintain an emotional connection with students online. Some 90% have been unable to assess progress effectively (Azim Premji University, September 2020) and almost one in two teachers have suffered a pay cut, while 11% lost their jobs.

Undoubtedly, the health and safety of our children should remain our primary concern; but may we once again request that we start a dialogue on the reopening of schools based on the experience of other countries and the opinion of experts?

Experts recommend a staggered re-opening of schools, starting with as low as 25% of children coming to school on a given day. Experience has shown that even starting with one in-person touch-point a week will make a huge difference to our children’s engagement. For their safety, it is imperative that we vaccinate school teachers and staff on a priority basis. Many of them have been exposed to covid and election duties, or various other unsafe environments, and have been traumatized. We need to offer them the right kind of support and counselling before we ask them to go back to work in a physical classroom.

Finally, let us remind ourselves that this too shall pass. Let’s remind ourselves of what we have come through and what we are capable of, if we work together. Through this pandemic, we have seen a level of compassion and connectedness like never before, and it is this tenacity and compassion that we should take into our schools. While doing so, we should recognize the rare opportunity we now have to change the status quo and re-imagine education.

This is an opportunity to think about what we would like to fix, what we would like to re-imagine and rework, and in doing so, we must listen to the voices of our children and work with them as partners to make this a reality. We would like to re-iterate that we must start a dialogue on when and how to re-open schools as safely as possible. We must act to protect our children’s future. And we need to do it now.

Anu Aga, Vijay Kelkar & Raghunath Mashelkar are trustees, Pune International Centre

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