Preparing students for life after Covid

With children either stuck to their screens or at risk of enduring a lost year, the question on everybody's lips is: When should schools open?

Covid has altered everybody's life, but the closure of schools has meant the impact on the very young could be long-lasting and difficult to predict. Direct effects range from insecurity, isolation from peers and depression to malnutrition from missing out on midday meals for the poor and obesity due to lack of activity for the affluent.  There's worse: Reports of physical and mental abuse, and even child suicides. Kids with special scholastic or physical needs aren't getting the personalised attention they need.

So the pressure to open up is intense, counterbalanced by a fear of an explosion in cases, and children carrying the virus home to vulnerable grandparents. Besides, parents are terrified of children getting a virus that is increasingly unpredictable. What to do? The answer to this conundrum lies in viewing the opening of schools very differently from unlocking the economy. Nationally we are near the peak of the epidemic; we need to wait for the endemic phase, marked by Iow and relatively steady numbers of infection. Then we can open schools for higher as well as lower grades, but with a clear protocol for safe practices.

We need to wait for the endemic phase, marked by Iow and relatively steady numbers of infection. Then we can open schools for higher as well as lower grades, but with a clear protocol for safe practices.

When schools were closed nationally on March 24, the epidemic was just starting in India. The virus had not even reached many states in India’s eastern region. So the closing of schools was clearly premature. Now, six months later, the epidemic has penetrated India’s remotest tribal habitats. In the US, the reopening of schools during the epidemic was followed by a 90 per cent increase in infection in children over four weeks. Reopening now will surely accelerate the spread of the virus, potentially leading to resurgence, possibly a second wave, and deaths among the elderly at home. Looking back now, we can say it was very easy to close schools but reopening will not be that simple. The Unlock 4 guidelines announced on August 29 allow schools to open partially for Classes 9 to 12 from September 21, but with no word yet on when schools will be allowed to reopen fully for all classes. But now is the time to prepare schools and to rehearse measures.

Education is on the concurrent list and both Central and State Governments are jointly in charge. Since the epidemic is not uniform in all states, the role of the Central government is to provide detailed guidelines. It must be the responsibility state governments to assess the local situation and make decisions on school reopening.

The one-size-fits-all approach, that was clearly faulty at the time of school closure, is also inappropriate for school reopening. States should consider anganwadis, primary, secondary, high and higher secondary schools separately and not as one unit. Within states, districts are not uniformly affected and a staggered approach, district by district, will be advisable.

The idea of ‘one size fits all’ must give way to decentralised planning and decisions taking into account local factors.

To manage the lifting of lockdown and economic recovery, district task forces with government and private participation will be an innovative step in decentralised governance. The district task force could assess the local conditions and assist the education department to prepare for school reopening.

Put detailed protocols in place

The immediate need is to spell out all mitigating steps to minimise the spread of infection and clear guidelines to keep the infection under check and watch. If anyone in school – be it student, teacher or ancillary staff – is infected, either in the school environs or elsewhere, protocols of action should be ready and rehearsed before schools are allowed to open.

Distance teaching is an option at the higher secondary level, if preparations are in place. Teachers, parents and children have to be ready with hardware, software and connectivity. If any child lacks any item, provision must be made to give it. Without such preparations, distance education as a blanket solution is not advisable. Teachers, staff and parents must be given authentic information on the epidemic to mitigate the stigma attached to the infection. Detailed training for physical distancing, mask-wearing, hand and respiratory hygiene must be given. Where necessary, classes could be conducted in shifts or batches. Anyone found ill in class needs quick medical attention.

Breaks for refreshments or lunch should be carefully planned and managed to avoid risk of infection when children will have to remove masks. Visual cues for physical distancing are needed on the floor; posters and reminders in the morning assembly can serve as channels for reinforcing new drills and disciplines put in place.

Breaks for refreshments or lunch should be carefully planned and managed to avoid risk of infection when children will have to remove masks. Visual cues for physical distancing are needed on the floor; posters and reminders in the morning assembly can serve as channels for reinforcing new drills and disciplines put in place. Contact sports must be avoided, but other games must be carefully supervised.

Providers of school transport services need education and preparation for safe travel of children. Such preparations will take time, and only after they are in place should the district task force allow schools to reopen.

When to reopen?

The best time to reopen schools will be after all schools are fully prepared and at a time when the epidemic has abated or the vaccine is in wide use. Nationally we are around the time of the epidemic peak and we can expect a slow decline in daily numbers of new infections. That will lead to the endemic phase when new infections will be low and steady. The experience of Germany shows that with proper precautions, and when infection had become endemic, reopening schools is safe and without the acceleration of virus spread.

The education department must grapple with the problems of catching up on syllabi, with fairness and lenience in conducting examinations and making the return to normalcy as smooth and non-traumatic as possible for all children.

The cooperation of parents must be ensured and the best agency to ensure the smooth reopening of schools is the district task force with the representation of government administrators, health authorities, educationists, representatives of businesses and professions, voluntary organisations and civil society.

The education department must grapple with the problems of catching up on syllabi, with fairness and lenience in conducting examinations and making the return to normalcy as smooth and non-traumatic as possible for all children. State governments must evolve policies on shortened durations of future school vacations and take extra efforts to make up for lost academic lessons. There should not be any stress on school students in the processes of school reopening and life gradually returning to normal.

The idea of ‘one size fits all’ must give way to decentralised planning and decisions taking into account local factors. The world after Covid must be a vastly better place than the one before. Schools are a good place to begin.

(Dr T Jacob John is a past president of the Indian Academy of Pediatrics (IAP) and Dr Dhanya Dharmapalan is the editor of the IAP Textbook of Pediatric Infectious Diseases)