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HRD Minister Considers Reopening of Schools in India During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Some Key Questions Addressed

Jul 16, 2020 5:32 AM 4 min read

As economies and businesses restart following months of lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, debates about the reopening of Indian schools, colleges and other academic institutions have gathered steam. 

The cost of keeping children out of classrooms may not be as pronounced as the cost of keeping businesses shut, but it is nevertheless unquestionably high. Both educationally and socially. 

However, reopening educational institutions might not be as simple as laying down a set of guidelines around social distancing, hygiene and sanitation. A number of questions pop up -  Are students going to be safe? How practical is it to follow social distancing and hygiene norms in a classroom? What are the risks of not reopening? And perhaps the most important one...What should we do?



Is it Safe to Reopen?

As per this Vox report, studies in Chicago, Massachusetts, Italy, South Korea, and Iceland have found that children make up fewer COVID-19 cases than expected, making a compelling case for reopening schools.

On the flipside however, one may argue that the low number may be credited to the early lockdowns and children largely staying back home during the pandemic. When sent back to school, will the numbers remain the same? 

But let’s say schools were to reopen and children are exposed to the virus, what are we facing here? 

As per an analysis of more than 550 confirmed cases among children under age 18 in China, Italy, and Spain, only nine people (1.6%) had severe or critical disease. In another study, approximately 5% (one out of 20) developed symptoms that required hospitalization, but only 0.6% required intensive care. In comparison, a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report indicates that among those ages 60 to 69 who have the coronavirus, 22% require hospitalization and 4% require intensive care.


How Practical is it to Follow Social Distancing and Hygiene Norms in a Classroom?

Maintaining social distancing and sanitation norms is key to remaining healthy during this pandemic. This would mean that some essential school infrastructures ought to be in place. 

However, as per this report by The Wire, 53,533 schools in India are single classroom schools. In 19% of schools, the student classroom ratio (STR) is 35 and above and in 8.3% of schools, i.e., around 1.3 lakh schools, more than 50 students sit in one classroom. 

In many schools, different classes are combined together to run the academic affairs, pushing the STR well beyond the  ideal 35:1. 

Under these circumstances, how is one expected to maintain social distancing in classrooms?


What are the Risks of Not Reopening?

In Britain, the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health has warned that leaving schools closed “risks scarring the life chances of a generation of young people.” 

Closure of schools has also greatly deprived students of physical activity, time with friends, access to healthy meals, physical and mental health care and reduced the availability of support for those with special needs. 

Students have been forced to manage with the resources of their families and needless to say, those with the fewest resources will suffer most. 

Online classes on high speed internet, smartphones and/or laptops is not something everyone can afford. 

In India, specifically, schools ensured that students got the requisite nutrition through mid-day meals. While many states are successfully delivering mid-day meals to students even during Covid-19 closure, some others are struggling to do so. Needless to say, continued closure of schools will not only affect a vast majority of children’s education in India, but also deeply impact their nutrition intake and thereby, their health. 


What Should We Do?

Well given the above statistics and studies, and  the pandemic presumably yet to peak in India, it would perhaps not be prudent to keep schools closed for long. 

One can possibly look at a blended learning approach - wherein face-to-face teaching is systematically mixed with online learning. 

For schools that reopen, maintaining the “6-feet” distance in classroom, corridors, washroom et al. Would be imperative. And given the additional costs schools will have to bear to ensure this, State Governments should step in to make the process seamless and efficient.  

Schools should also explore cohorting, that is, the same set of students would be together all day long. This would ensure less mixing, less spread in case of infection and ease in contact tracing.  

Schools can also consider having outdoor classrooms. Class should be staggered to ensure a lesser number of students per class. This might also need additional staff hiring. 

For areas that don’t have access to internet services or technology to support online classes, the local administration must ensure that the requisite steps are taken so that the children don’t miss out. 

The questions are complex and the task at hand is a humongous one, but one that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.


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