Everyone is waiting for things to get back to the pre-Covid days. Students, their parents, and their teachers are waiting for class work to resume; the wait has been too long. While all the other activities, be it agriculture, manufacturing, trade, tourism, transport or aviation, have suffered heavy losses but the loss to education is incalculable. We don’t know if this loss can ever be compensated. The loss seems to be far more for the poor than for the rich, and more for the school children than for the college students.
A child admitted to Class 1 in late 2019 or early 2020 might soon be in Class 3 without having attended school physically for even a single day. A primary school student who has been staying at home for almost 2 years might have forgotten most of the concepts they knew earlier. When the reopening of schools takes place, it will be a big challenge to fill the learning gaps. Therefore, opening elementary schools is of urgent importance and not just the secondary or senior secondary level schools, which have been the focus of the authorities so far.
When the pandemic hit the globe, online/virtual teaching-learning became the new reality. However, the outcome is not satisfactory. Many of the students simply don’t exist in the new system. According to the National Sample Survey 2020-21, only 61 percent of the Indian households had a smartphone, which means a vast number of students couldn’t have accessed any of the online education platforms.
Similarly, a study conducted by Azim Premji University last year, based on a survey of 80,000 students, 398 parents and 1522 teachers, found that of the surveyed students 60 percent were not able to access online learning. The reasons varied from absence of smartphones to multiple siblings sharing a smartphone, to difficulty in using the apps for online learning. Teachers said 90 percent of the children with disability were unable to participate in online classes. More than 80 percent of the teachers expressed the impossibility of maintaining an emotional connect with children; more than 90 percent of them said that no meaningful assessment of the children’s learning was possible in online classes. It also found that 82% of children on average had lost at least one specific mathematical ability from the previous year, across all classes.
The facts make it obvious that a virtual classroom, however good, cannot be an alternative to an actual classroom. It doesn’t satisfy curricular needs nor co-curricular needs. Moreover, with schools shut, mid-day meals are not being served, and many children are missing perhaps the only nutritious meal they used to get. The distribution of dry ration may not be enough to compensate for it.
Another important fact is that many children do not stay home all day; they go outside to play with their friends even in crowded places. Schools can become a place to sensitise them about Covid and teach how to behave in crowded places in the school, at home, and elsewhere.
Therefore, it is time to reopen schools, including those of elementary level. However, the reopening must be properly planned and all the necessary safety measures must be taken into consideration. The preparations have to begin now. In this context, the recent statement of the ICMR Director General, Balram Bhargava, is important and encouraging. He said: “Oonce India starts reopening schools, it will be wise to begin with primary section as children have a lower number of ace receptors to which the virus attaches, making them much better at handling viral infections than adults.” He, however, stressed that for such a step to be considered, it must be ensured that school teachers and other support staff members are vaccinated.
The joint statement by UNICEF and UNESCO is equally important. Among other things it said, “… This [closure of schools] should not go on. Schools should be the last to close and first to reopen.” It also said, “… Reopening [of schools] cannot wait for all teachers and students to be vaccinated…”
The question now is, can we afford to keep the classrooms locked for more months? The answer is very simple: No. However, we must not give the virus another chance to wreak havoc, for it has already done a lot of damage. Covid Appropriate Behaviour has to be a priority; there’s no room for any leniency in this regard. All the SOPs must be binding upon all, so that the schools are reopened permanently and not only for a few days.
—The writer is a teacher. [email protected]