- Schools across India have been shut for over 10 months now
- Experts recommend reopening schools for secondary classes
- WHO is asking schools to do their own risk assessment before reopening
New Delhi: Almost 10 months ago, on March 10, 2020, Kerala became the first Indian state to suspend classes in all schools and colleges and exams for classes up to 7th standard. The following day, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Coronavirus pandemic and soon schools and colleges across India were shut. Online classes became the new normal. However, now with the phased reopening of the country, some schools are reopening after being shut for over nine months. In a special series, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, Technical Lead for COVID-19 at WHO, talked about reopening of schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic and said,
Everyone understands how important schools are for children. Not only for education, but for their well-being, for their mental health, for security and, in some situations, it’s where many children get food. Many countries are considering opening up their societies as they bring transmission under control and schools are part of that reopening. It’s really, really important that we understand that schools don’t operate in isolation. Schools are part of communities. So, when we consider opening schools, that we bring transmission in those communities under control.
Central Government Guidelines On Reopening Of Schools
As per the Ministry of Home Affairs, states’ and Union Territories’ (UTs) governments are allowed to take a decision in respect of reopening of schools and coaching institutions in a graded manner in consultation with the respective schools and institutions management and based on the local situation. In October 2020, the Department of School Education and Literacy, Ministry of Education had issued Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) or Guidelines for reopening of schools.
Schools, allowed to, open must follow the guideline prepared by State/UT Education Departments based on SOP of DoSEL. The SOP/guidelines of DoSEL, @EduMinOfIndia comprises of two parts:
I. Health, hygiene & safety
ii. Learning with physical/social distancing#SchoolGuidelines
— Dr. Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank (@DrRPNishank) October 5, 2020
The document lists SOP for health, hygiene and other safety protocols before the opening of schools. This includes ensuring proper cleaning and sanitation facilities in the school; maintaining a physical distance of 6 feet; staggering timetables by following odd-even formula for classes, running a school in two shifts, among other ways; taking parent’s or guardian’s consent before their child starts attending the school; sensitising students, parents, teachers, community members and hostel staff on COVID-19 related challenges and their role. Similarly, SOP was issued for health, hygiene and other safety protocols after reopening of schools and while serving mid-day meal in schools.
Part II of guidelines refers to learning with physical or social distancing and the academic aspects related to the delivery of education, such as curriculum transactions, instructional load, timetables, assessment, among others. The document clearly states that these are advisory in nature. States and UTs may use these in the manner deemed fit to prepare their own guidelines.
Experts Talk: Things To Keep In Mind While Reopening Of Schools
States across the country including Bihar, Puducherry, and Punjab have reopened schools for limited classes, majorly upper primary classes. Other states like Odisha are also following the suit. But is it safe to reopen schools? Dr Ravindra M Mehta, Senior Consultant and HOD – Pulmonology and Interventional pulmonology, Apollo Speciality Hospitals Jayanagar, said, it is reasonable to think about restarting offline classes. He said,
Reopening of schools has been a part of an organised strategy which is done towards establishing normalcy. It is a staggered process where most of the states or UTs reopening schools are doing it for senior classes majorly class 10 and 12 because those are crucial years and those students are capable of understanding and following COVID-19 precautionary measures. Currently, schools are being reopened for limited hours and classes that too with precautions like taking parent’s consent, ensuring physical distancing, among others. Once the system is in place, the number of hours can be increased.
Dr Fazal Nabi, Director of Pediatrics at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre in Mumbai also believes that reopening schools is the right decision considering most of the activities have been restarted. He said,
The number of COVID-19 cases has come down and the recovery rate is improving. It’s safe to reopen schools. At home, children sit in front of gadgets all day; there is little to no physical activity which is also impacting their mental health. Also, not all children have access to online classes. We haven’t seen serious COVID-19 disease in children but they can be the carrier of the virus hence it is essential for them to follow guidelines. Instead of restricting children’s movement, we should educate and mobilise them to follow COVID precautionary measures and make them responsible.
Dr Mehta noted that schools are being reopened in areas where the number of COVID-19 has declined and the risk is minimal. He very categorically recommended first restarting classes for a senior wing and later for a primary wing.
In addition to this, Dr Nabi suggested few measures and said,
Avoid group projects and activities in school to ensure social distancing; teachers should not call students to their desk or blackboard, basically, avoid physical contact; ensure cross-ventilation in classrooms.
To ensure a school is prepared to welcome students with COVID precautionary measures that are physical distancing, and handwashing stations for hand hygiene in place, WHO is asking schools to do their own risk assessment. Talking about the steps that schools will need to take to do that risk assessment, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, said,
Not all schools look the same globally. They may be different in terms of the way the buildings look, the number of hours that children are at school, the type of ventilation that may be there, if there’s boarding that’s happening at the schools. And so what we want schools to do is to look at can we apply the public health measures that need to be in place, such as physical distancing and keeping people at least one meter apart, making sure that there are hand hygiene stations, for example, are alcohol-based rub stations in the classrooms, in schools that children can clean their hands.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove also recommended making sure there are provisions and plans in place if there’s a COVID-19 suspect case in school. These plans include, quickly detecting the case; contact tracing; communicating to the students, adults, the parents of those children, and also the people who work at the school.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. Only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene.