Governments are being swayed by the fake and now discredited narrative that the third wave would affect children disproportionately
There is sufficient evidence that vaccination of children is not a prerequisite for opening of schools and does not pose additional risk to children or family members. The benefits of opening schools outweigh the risks. An urgent priority has to be to develop a plan and roadmap to open schools safely.
India is amongst the few countries where schools have been closed for the longest time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By end-July 2021, around 175 countries had opened schools. In many, including France, Denmark, Portugal, and the Netherlands, most schools – especially primary schools – had remained open even at the peak of the pandemic or were closed only for a very short duration.
Seventeen months into the pandemic and eight months of 2019 lockdown, there is abundant evidence of the damage the prolonged closure of schools has done to the children. UNESCO has estimated that every month away from school results in a learning loss of 2 months. The last 25 months have set children back by almost 50 months. An Asian Development Bank analysis has pointed out that every year of schooling lost is equivalent to 9.7% less earning in the future.
Seventeen months into the pandemic and eight months of abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A amounts to 25 months, but our children are suffering a series of lockdown years, starting from 2008, 2010, 2014 (floods), 2016, 2019, 2020 and now 2021. This means a student who is now preparing to crack NEET 2021 was in LKG in year 2008.
Witnessing a series of lockdowns that is altogether different from the rest of the world, I think we can compromise on our food and shelter but not the career of our children. The impact of school shutdown on the emotional and mental health of children is irreversible. During the pandemic, children confined to home experienced challenges within the family and abuse. In the US and UK, studies have reported an uptick in student suicide and children starting on anti-depressants. Here in our part of the world, the rise in suicidal cases and children engaging in unlawful activities and drug addiction is on the rise.
A UNICEF India report in May 2020 noted that parents of one-third of primary-school and half of the secondary-school children reported that their child’s mental and socio-emotional health had been compromised.
Children are naturally protected from this deadly virus, studies say. The Coronavirus (SARS CoV2) enters the human body through the nose and mouth and then travels to the lungs to develop moderate to severe disease. While children do get infected (virus reaches their nose and throat), they do not have sufficiently developed receptors in their lungs – the angiotensin conversion enzyme-II or ACE-II receptors — which the virus needs to enter the body and make a person sick. That is the reason why children get infected but do not develop symptoms or fall sick. A healthy child is at very low risk, ranging from 100 to 8,000 times lower than adults, depending upon the age.
Although the government claims to have vaccinated more than 50% of adult population in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir, there is no vaccine available for children up to 17 plus, so the silence of the government on the opening of schools and coaching centers is meaningless.
In reality, children have been on online classes but a beef-without-mustard situation has been observed by academicians and educationists around the globe, as children below 12 couldn’t synchronise with the online platform for regular class work. My personal experience and the experience of my acquaintances made me write here the real outcome of online mode of teaching. My kids use to attend the online classes, mark attendance, keep the phone on some table or a shelf, and remained busy playing with each other or watching TV. When asked why they do so, they simply said they don’t understand anything in these classes. I tend to concur with them, because I myself couldn’t understand what the poor teacher wanted to teach.
It is even more challenging for the teachers who take online classes, as the personal touch, eye to eye contact, personal interaction and personal monitoring are all missing in online classes. Video games like PUBG have only grown in popularity, as if it has become the birthright with the excuse of online classes now. The eyesight of little kids is getting compromised every passing day. The government of Jammu and Kashmir is either reluctant or slow to open schools. This has partly been influenced by the ferocious second wave and projections about the third wave of Covid. However, governments are being swayed by the fake and now discredited narrative that the third wave would affect children disproportionately. Some of the public perceptions have been influenced by misleading headlines about how many children are getting infected. There is no denying that children get infected and may test COVID-19 positive. However, it is not getting an infection but what proportion of children gets a severe disease that matters. Fortunately, proportion of children who get moderate to severe disease is negligible. We have developed a scientific understanding that children are not likely to get a severe disease. Only the children with pre-existing illness or those who are on treatment for some other condition are at slightly higher risk. We need to be more careful about those children. A healthy child has a very low risk of severe disease.
What if we are hit by a third wave and it is followed by 4th wave and so and so on? We can’t keep our eyes closed now. Enough is enough. Even some states of the country have started opening up schools and colleges.
We can never be compared to the other states because of the pile of education deficit since 2008. Even if schools don’t open in other parts of the country, here they should take the call to open schools in the interest of the deteriorating educational setup of Jammu and Kashmir.
Above all, the LG government has started rehabilitating other industries like tourism sector, traders, transporters and others too, giving them packages, bank interest waiver, etc. Many schools and most coaching centres are operating in rented buildings and the rental burden has cracked their spine. Two months of operation and ten months of lockdown can never go hand in hand. The government should seriously think about the sinking boat of educational industry here in this part of the world, should come up with the proper road map and a package to save these institutions from further decline.
Opening of schools is the only logical step and urgent need of the hour. My suggestion to the LG government would be to open schools in a phased manner, or odd-even manner, or based on percentage of students who can attend at one time. The success of the LG’s government will be determined by the education system and its outcome only.