Coronavirus | Tamil Nadu’s dilemma — To reopen schools or not

Post-COVID-19, the reopening of schools and colleges is a question that doesn’t really offer a simple answer. The government announced that schools will be opened on November 16. It then decided to pause and listen to what parents and other stakeholders had to say. Heads of institutions are looking at the reopening with trepidation, given the numbers on campus.

Updated - November 08, 2020 11:15 pm IST

Published - November 08, 2020 01:21 am IST

Protocols in place:  Seating arrangements for students being marked to implement physical distancing norms at a school  in Coimbatore. Schools in Tamil Nadu are preparing to reopen on November 16 after closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Protocols in place: Seating arrangements for students being marked to implement physical distancing norms at a school in Coimbatore. Schools in Tamil Nadu are preparing to reopen on November 16 after closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday, parents from across Tamil Nadu will participate in an exercise organised by the schools their children study in to contribute towards an important decision — when schools can be reopened in the State.

It has been nearly eight months since schools and colleges in the State were shut down after the first national lockdown was announced in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This has heralded sweeping changes in the functioning of educational institutions, and the evolution of teaching and learning. Debates on when educational institutions in the country can reopen began sometime around June. But it was in October that the Ministry of Education issued guidelines for the reopening of schools in a graded manner.

Tamil Nadu’s subsequent announcement to reopen schools for students of Classes 9 to 12 to seek guidance from their teachers was soon rolled back. A fresh announcement was made early November to reopen schools for Classes 9 to 12.

Soon after, however, the State government directed schools to hold consultations with the parents of students and the representatives of parent-teacher associations on November 9 for their feedback, based on which a decision is expected to be taken on the reopening of schools.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that data suggests children under the age of 18 years represent about 8.5% of the reported cases, with relatively fewer deaths compared to other age groups and usually milder symptoms. However, their role in transmitting the disease to older and senior citizens at home cannot be ignored. Getting schools to reopen has also been a long-standing demand of several institutions, who believe that students from senior classes in particular need some form of direct interaction with their teachers in a year that is crucial to their future. The digital divide among students from different backgrounds, too, is real. The Annual State of Education Report (ASER) survey, 2020, indicated that only one in 10 rural children had access to live online classes.

While the government is expected to take a decision for schools based on parental feedback, both schools and colleges need to look at a host of important aspects with regard to campus infrastructure, safety norms to be implemented and a standard operating procedure (SOP) to be followed.

UNICEF’s advisory

An article by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on classroom precautions to be taken in view of the pandemic prioritises four major aspects — physical distancing at schools, practising health and hand hygiene, cleaning and disinfecting classrooms, and the action to take if a student appears sick.

Infrastructural changes in particular were taken up by several private schools across the State over the last few months. School principals said this ranged from installing handwashing facilities at all entrances to a school, procuring single-seater furniture as well as stocking up on sanitiser dispensers and masks.

“Many government schools do not have access to sufficient running water to ensure that the students can wash their hands frequently. In addition, there are a very limited number of functional toilets present in most of the government schools in the district,” said S. Murugan, district secretary of the Tamil Nadu Graduate and Post Graduate Teachers Association, highlighting some of the concerns that they might face.

When an announcement was initially made in October to allow students of Classes 9 to 12 on campus for guidance work, several schools began to disinfect their campuses. “The reopening date was postponed and it was a wasteful expense for us,” said the headmistress of a government higher secondary school in Coimbatore. With over 1,300 students in Classes 9 to 12 alone, she said that detailed guidelines from the government were awaited for more clarity on how to implement safety measures.

In the absence of a governmental direction on this, some schools decided to innovate to inspire confidence among parents. In order to reassure parents about the measures in place, Vishnucharan Paneerselvam, correspondent, Shree Niketan Group of schools, said they had sent detailed information and invited them to the campus to see the changes made — something that many schools are hoping to do on November 9.

How students will travel to their campuses and whether it will be possible to ensure that safety protocols are followed is the big question now. Prince Gajendra Babu, general secretary, State Platform for Common School System — Tamil Nadu, noted that students in several districts often travelled long distances in public transport systems to reach their schools.

M. Senthilnathan, president of the Private Schools Correspondents Confederation, Madurai, too, said a major concern among heads of schools was students’ adherence to physical distancing norms outside of schools, especially when they travel to the campus.

“This is where it is important to acknowledge that bringing back students to campuses involves a community effort — the buck just doesn’t end with schools implementing safety measures,” Mr. Paneerselvam said. “The responsibility begins at home — with parents inculcating a sense of awareness among their children on safety protocols to be followed at all times. This is especially important if they’re going to be coming to school and mingling with students and teachers.”

The Ministry guidelines have so far specified that attendance on campus should be voluntary. In Andhra Pradesh, when schools and colleges reopened on November 2, attendance was varying across institutions and most schools stuck to half a day of classes. More recently, cases of teachers testing positive have become a matter of concern.

There are several restrictions to keep in mind before drawing up a schedule. Rev. Arul Suganthi, headmistress of the St. Ignatius Convent Higher Secondary School in Palayamkottai, shared how they had planned to divide each section of each standard (from Classes 9 to 12) into four batches and seat them in separate classrooms. “To tide over the shortage in the number of teachers, we’ve planned to utilise the services of teachers from lower classes but with higher educational qualifications,” she added.

What is it that parents need to keep in mind when they meet with schools on Monday? S. Arumainathan, president of the Tamil Nadu Student Parent Welfare Association, said the biggest concern now was that schools reopening on November 16 would be right after Deepavali. “Even if schools can guarantee safety on campus, children will be coming in after having visited crowded shopping hubs or gatherings with their families.”

Mr. Prince Gajendra Babu also pointed out that a consultation exercise should be backed by necessary information. “While it is appreciable that parents are being asked to share their views, on what basis will parents and teachers be making a decision? They should be given access to information from the Directorate of Public Health or the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) on the current situation with respect to COVID-19,” he said.

Earlier this year, the State government had formed an expert committee for schools to study how learning progressed during the pandemic and the factors to be considered for reopening them. The report has been submitted to the Chief Minister but has not been made public yet. Activists feel it should be done at the earliest.

UGC guidelines

On Thursday, the University Grants Commission (UGC) issued guidelines on the reopening of universities and colleges. Heads of institutions, however, await guidelines from the State government as well.

State universities are planning to implement staggered timings and for online and regular classes to be conducted simultaneously. Laboratory work for science students is of prime concern.

A senior faculty of Government Arts and Science College in Sivakasi said masking, physical distancing and handwashing — the three main preventive measures promoted by the Health Department to keep COVID-19 at bay — would be a struggle to implement for institutions that lack basic facilities.

“How do you expect us to provide enough space for 1,800 students to maintain minimum physical distance when the college has only 17 classrooms as against its minimum requirement of at least 46 classrooms,” he asked.

“The feedback from the heads of colleges is that it will not be difficult to plan a staggered schedule for students at all levels. The idea is that two batches of students could be asked to attend classes in turns on alternate weeks,” said P. Manisankar, Vice-Chancellor (V-C), Bharatidasan University.

Manonmaniam Sundaranar University (MSU) V-C K. Pitchumani said they would accord highest priority to the students from the science stream to come to the affiliated colleges and also to the MSU campus as they would have to attend practical sessions.

“While students from the arts stream may continue with their online sessions, science students will be allowed to come to the colleges and the MSU campus in batches so that we can ensure physical distancing in the classrooms/laboratories, and also in the hostels where two students can be accommodated per room,” he said.

University of Madras V-C S. Gowri, too, said it was important for them to ensure access to labs for science students. Affiliated colleges, meanwhile, are awaiting the university’s directions. Principal of Sindhi College K. Sathyanarayana said enforcing physical distancing in his college with a student strength of 2,000 would be “practically impossible”.

“We can only educate them. We may clean the toilets more often. But how can I control the students from clustering. How much should we invest in hand sanitisers? Some of our students are unable even to pay the fees. Teachers will have to handle students’ books and notebooks,” he pointed out.

Though a Senate member of the university, he stayed away from the meeting for safety reasons. Only half of the members of the Academic Council and the Senate attended the recent meetings, he said.

These are common concerns raised by college principals. Madras Christian College principal P. Wilson said that he wasn’t comfortable reopening the college. “We have 8,000 students — in the morning and afternoon shift — and they come from abroad, from Kerala, the north and the northeastern States. We cannot invite students without opening the hostels. There is no guarantee that they will not pick up the infection during travel,” he said.

The college is investing in e-content creation and internet connectivity. “We plan to offer demonstrations through virtual laboratory sessions. The government could ask teachers and non-teaching staff to attend. As they are fewer in numbers, they can be monitored to follow the safety protocols,” he added.

Anna University V-C M.K. Surappa has been holding several meetings but is yet to arrive at a foolproof mechanism. On November 9, the university will start the induction programme for its first year students. “There is a lot of confusion. We need guidelines before opening. We have delayed so much, we can wait for some more time. For laboratory work, we could get the students in batches for a period of three weeks. Give each student a room and finish the project work. We could augment a virtual reality laboratory also,” he said.

“We still have a week’s time to arrive at a decision,” he added.

Both schools and colleges now await a comprehensive set of guidelines on the norms to implement as well as protocols to follow in case of an emergency. Based on what the guidelines say, more institutions are expected to take a decision in the coming weeks about whether to throw open their doors for students or not.

(With inputs from P.A. Narayani and S. Sundar in Madurai, R. Akileish in Coimbatore, P. Sudhakar in Tirunelveli and R. Krishnamoorthy in Tiruchi)

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