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Learning safely: On schools reopening

As schools prepare to reopen, the focus has to be on vaccination and safe behaviour

August 27, 2021 12:02 am | Updated 10:08 am IST

The Centre’s move to allocate 2 crore coronavirus vaccine doses for universal coverage of all teaching and non-teaching staff in schools by Teachers’ Day (September 5) adds a measure of confidence that resumption of face-to-face classes from September is not fraught with high risk. Several States are preparing to reopen schools, mostly for Class 9 and higher , next month. Some, including Haryana, Telangana and Gujarat, have announced that they will allow offline classes even for younger children. Amidst fears of a third wave of the pandemic, epidemiologists, academicians and policymakers have been wrestling with the question of a low-risk trade-off, balancing protection from the virus with some bridging of the learning deficit caused by prolonged school closures that are crippling future prospects of millions of children. It is encouraging that half of the 97 lakh teachers in the country have already been immunised, by official estimates, making it feasible to reach the rest by September 5. The risk of infection to children in schools remains, however, and must be addressed with utmost seriousness, particularly with fast-transmitting virus variants present in all States. This calls for a coherent response that incorporates the best learnings from epidemiology and decentralises decision-making to the districts based on local circumstances. It is, of course, a step forward that a vaccine, the three-dose ZyCoV-D , has been approved for the 12-18 age group, but this is to be administered only from October. The reversion to physical classes will, therefore, have to be carefully calibrated.

Vaccination of children over 12 years of age has been allowed in some countries, but the pandemic’s course has remained unpredictable. In Israel, one of the most vaccinated countries with an estimated 78% coverage of the over-12 population, the Delta variant swiftly caused a spike in infections as distancing norms, the mask mandate and travel bans were eliminated. In one instance, an entire class of students was infected by one unvaccinated child who had been on vacation. This cautionary tale serves to emphasise the importance of priority vaccination of children, starting with those who may have other health conditions, maintaining safety protocols, and adopting low-cost non-pharmaceutical interventions such as good classroom ventilation and open-air instruction wherever feasible. Credentialed studies in the U.S. indicate that these are effective measures, along with vaccination. It is vitally important for the Centre to share information on the school reopening experience with all States and issue alerts in real time to enable decision-making. An empirical approach will also enable organisations such as the National Institute of Disaster Management collate useful insights. Parents must be convinced by transparent official measures that the health and education prospects of their children are in safe hands.

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