Back to school
Educational institutions then have their work cut out for them - it is not just about physical safety but also about a student’s mental wellness Image Credit: Shutterstock

It is a moment of reckoning. As schools begin to reopen across India, doubts and fear- our constant companions for almost two years have resurfaced. When it comes to kids, all bets are off. Ask a parent, they will tell you that there is no bigger conflict than doing the right thing, by our children.

Only in this COVID-19 haze, no one quite knows what that right thing or path is. Even those who have played it by the book in confronting the virus are conflicted. How do we send our unvaccinated children to school? After a year and a half, how do we not send our children to school?

As one after the other states take the plunge, getting children back to campus is becoming a long overdue priority. Globally malls and pubs opened while children remained stuck indoors this despite UNICEF warning that ‘prolonged school closures continue to jeopardise the futures of millions of children in South Asia. Once deemed safe, reopening schools must be considered an upmost priority.’

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A teacher sits in an empty classroom as he prepares for online teaching at a government high school in Hyderabad. Image Credit: AFP

With cases in the country taking a dip and WHO Chief Scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan saying that India could be entering “some kind of stage of endemicity” (where there is low to moderate level transmission unlike the peaks of recent months) that moment seems to be now — at least to introduce a hybrid model of schooling, wherever feasible. The inequity of education highlighted during Covid-19 is a conversation for another day.

Being comfortable and what seems to be the right thing are two different issues.

Data has been telling us consistently that the virus does not impact most children virulently and yet when it comes to sending kids to school most of us fall back on anecdotal evidence- a contradictory term in itself.

It allows us a more humane version of events, a reminder that a friend’s daughter or son were infected and that whether we show it or not, we are scared.

Unfortunately though, it also allows us to choose what we want to hear. For instance, the only news that seeped in recently for me was about a toddler getting infected in his nursery and passing on the virus to his vaccinated parents.

Lack of vaccination

The dilemma for parents over schools reopening — and it is a crucial factor, is the lack of vaccination of their children. The government’s COVID-19 panel chief N K Arora while calling for the reopening of schools in a phased manner has said that vaccination of 44 crore children under the age of 18 is not as much a focus as getting the “shields” around them vaccinated.

The Zydus Cadilla vaccine for the age group 12-17, is expected to be rolled out in October but in a phased manner with healthy children likely to get a jab only in early 2022. But reports from some states where students have already been attending physical classes already indicate a rise in the number of cases in children.

Globally as well, the US reported a surge when students went back to school. But unlike the US, the big concern in India apart from vaccination is the ventilation and hygiene in classrooms.

Gathering more than 30 students in a single room as is the average is unsafe without proper air circulation. It is a given that teachers and all adults on campus at least must be vaccinated.

But it is not just about our children being exposed, their ability to be carriers puts the health of elderly grandparents as well as those family members with a pre-existing, health issue at home also in jeopardy. And yet, is it not fair to let our children out, finally? While COVID forced them at many tough times to be in our shoes, we have seldom been in theirs.

These children are not who they were when they last sat in a classroom. They have lived through a lifetime of anxiety, fear and panic. Their socio emotional skills are rusted, unstructured living- the biggest life lesson has been turned on its head. Educationists are warning, schools will have to go beyond textbook teaching to allow the children to normalise.

Student teacher ratio in India

Educational institutions then have their work cut out for them- it is not just about physical safety but also about a student’s mental wellness. Yet the latter will take second fiddle as the student teacher ratio in the country remains low with a shortfall of 5 lakh teachers in higher education.

The NEP policy talks of bringing it down from 30:1 but for that the budget also needs a rethink and that can only be in the long term.

For now, all stakeholders- government, schools and parents- need to work together to get students safely back into the classroom. For that, children need to be prioritised and vaccinated on a war footing. Schools will close, down again and reopen, that is the inevitability of the virus.

There could still be some truth in the third wave and children, but for now it is only speculation, and we can do is hope for a good run. The festival season is also upon us again, Kerala during Onam has showed us how things have the potential of going out control. It can also be in our hands.

I have often found the phrase ‘children adjust fast’ to be overused and unfair. But in this instance, I think they will. Having seen my own children go to school with excitement, I can tell those who are still nervous that despite the unpredictability, they adapt quickly- to the bubbles and the masks. They are just thrilled to be back among friends, that is all it takes.

So, is it worth taking a risk to reopen schools? With a hand on my heart and a prayer on my lips, I say yes, for now. The reckoning isn’t easy, nor is the moment.