With nearly half the academic year over, and no sign of the pandemic letting up, the natural question that people have started asking is, ‘when should schools reopen?’
From the pandemic management standpoint, the answer is simple- not anytime soon.
But can the answer really be that simple?
Despite restrictions on the activities that are allowed, the number of new cases is still going up every day. There is still very little awareness among the general public on how to adopt preventive practices.
At this stage, opening up schools can colleges can be calamitous.
When the first wave was over, schools and colleges reopened in some countries, but in almost all of them, they were forced to close down again after the number of people testing positive went up.
It is hard to keep the infection under control once schools and colleges reopen.
Maintaining physical distancing is hard given the space constraint. Even if you reopen with two batches and reduced hours, ensuring that the washrooms and common areas are kept sanitized is not an easy task.
Ensuring proper masking during the entire school hours is also not easy. Even if the mask is kept on, the danger of cross contamination is high, and students may not always know when to replace the old mask with a new one.
Students, teachers and staff would need to travel from home to school/ college which will put an additional burden on the public transport system.
The existing school transport may not be sufficient to accomodate students taking distancing into account.
Do we really need to worry about infections when students fall in a low risk category, one may ask. Low risk doesn’t mean no risk. And even if the students themselves are not at risk, they could carry the virus home and infect elderly relatives.
Reopening would expose teachers and staff to the virus, and many of them may choose to resign.
Reopening schools and colleges will be possible only after a proven, inexpensive vaccine is available, or if the virus mutates to become less virulent. Both these seem highly unlikely before the end of the academic year.
If we are looking at schools not reopening physically for a year, what does that imply for the students?
Studies have shown that a larger percentage of students from vulnerable communities have dropped out of the system.
One reason for this is because they do not have the technology to access online teaching. But the greater reason is that poverty and job loss is forcing families to get their adolescent daughters married and putting their sons to work.
Many of these students will not return.
Online classes is not an answer. Most students from low income households do not have access to a dedicated digital device, and even if they do, they do not have reliable internet connections. Going for online classes will only increase the divide between the marginalized and the rest.
The penetration of television is much higher, and the state governments can leverage on them to broadcast lessons. This too has a problem- frequent power cuts, and scheduling of lessons when there are multiple children per household need to be factored in. This could work.
However, is this the optimal utilization of the forced ‘gap year’?
One of the biggest failures of the education system is the huge gap in learning levels of students, both in literacy and numeracy. Many grade 7 students are stuck at level 2 competencies.
This academic year can be utilized for bridging the gap in learning levels. Curriculums exist which empower students to learn fundamentals of numeracy and literacy through self study. Volunteers can be engaged to assist where required. Paying an honourarium to the volunteers also helps generate livelihood.
If bridging learning levels is made the prime focus, the proposed objective can be to ensure that all students end the academic year with age appropriate literacy and numeracy skills.
Out of school children can learn outside school hours.
Any subjects taught through television would not be graded, and will only complement the basic objective.
With the pressure taken off the students, schools could also try to focus on their mental health. Already, studies are showing that students who were subject to bullying in school are now faring much better. This year can, therefore, be a great leveler.
Would there be any disadvantages to keeping physical schools closed for the academic year, and taking learning back to the home?
Families where both parents work, and which don’t have adequate child care with suffer. There is no solution to this, except to mandate that work from home opportunities be provided for either parent. Alternately, children of such households can be allowed to spend the day in the school premises under minimal supervision and adequate distancing.
Lack of access to mid-day meals is the other concern. But in the current scenario, it would be impossible to cook and serve mid-day meals in any case. Increasing the ration provided to households is a possible solution.
In some states, the government school system was used to distribute menstrual hygiene products to adolescent girls. An alternate distribution channel has to be found for this and other such essential products.
The gap in learning levels is ignored because teachers have the course to cover. The pandemic has given a unique opportunity for students to bridge the learning gap, and for learning through self-study. If these two objectives are met, it might have served a useful purpose.