No right answer: On decision of reopening of schools

The decision to reopen schools must be guided primarily by epidemiological evidence

July 21, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

The course of the COVID-19 pandemic remains far from predictable, posing for the Central government the dilemma of salvaging part of the school academic year , while avoiding a fresh wave of infections. The school reopening question has not been resolved satisfactorily in other parts of the world, and the measures by many countries have been experimental. Yet, policymakers are aware of severe impacts to the education process, and the losses to students. The alternative, of remote and online learning opportunities , is skewed by economic status and geography. In India, the many divides — digital, rural-urban and rich-poor — have painfully come to the fore between regions and even within States. There are instances of children left behind, without computer access, Internet connectivity, TV sets and even electricity. The issue of reopening schools in a calibrated manner must, therefore, be addressed soon, but based mainly on epidemiological evidence. It is understandable that in the present confused situation, 21 out of 36 States and Union Territories including worst-affected Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have not taken a view yet on when to permit direct classes. States have also been asked to ascertain the opinion of parents on this issue, although it is unclear how they can do this in the short window given to them.

Among the Centre’s responses to the problem, initiated through organisations such as the CBSE, is a reduction of the syllabus load for Classes 9 to 12 by 30%, although this ostensibly supportive decision has become controversial for its choice of topics for removal: democratic rights, federalism, citizenship and secularism, to name a few. There is a discernible trend of diminishing basic rights as a necessary sacrifice to fight the pandemic, but impoverishing the syllabus on these topics can only stunt social development. Such decisions should be vetted by academic experts, and not imposed by bureaucratic fiat. More fundamentally, if lessons are to be drawn from around the world on a back-to-school plan, a just-released large-scale study from South Korea would be useful. Research findings from that country, which worked hard to contain the pandemic early, show that older children, between 10 and 19, transmit the virus as much as adults do. The findings have been acknowledged by public health institutions in the U.S. as valuable, and offer a cautionary pointer to community spread among adults and vulnerable groups from older students. On the other hand, the European experience, instanced by Denmark as far back as April, is that containment in the community has to precede school reopening. The question is much more complex for India, as a society that has severe iniquities, and where students live in multi-generational homes. Clearly, no early date can be set for a full reopening, and protocols on class size, distancing, ventilation of rooms, face coverings and even open air classes need to be evolved. Meanwhile, developing remote education for measurable outcomes should be pursued actively, since future disruptions cannot be ruled out.

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