Safe at school: On getting students back on campus

Students should be able to return to campus without fear if protocols are strict

Updated - August 12, 2021 12:56 am IST

Published - August 12, 2021 12:02 am IST

Almost every child got left behind for more than a year in India, as COVID-19 shuttered schools and forced pupils to study online at home, if they could. This long period of learning loss is a major setback in itself, affecting the physical and mental health of many students and depriving them of a year of vital skill development. It is understandable, therefore, that at least 14 States and Union Territories have tempered caution with calculated risk and opted to reopen campuses , mostly for secondary and higher secondary students. These governments are not alone in looking for the golden mean to manage the pandemic. In several countries, leaders are exploring ways to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection among pupils who are not yet eligible for vaccination, while getting them back on campus. At the end of the second wave, in July, Haryana and Nagaland went back to in-person teaching for higher classes, while Punjab, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Puducherry and Lakshadweep are doing so this month. Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha are to follow. As schools reopen, there are positive indicators available from countries experimenting with back-to-school decisions, and red flags, in the wake of the Delta variant’s wildfire spread.

One study of a million students and staff members who returned to school this year in the United States, where children must be 12 years old to get a vaccine, showed that in spite of the resultant exposure to 7,000 COVID-19-positive children and adults, only 363 other children and adults acquired the infection. This is attributed to a universal mask mandate. In India, with a school student population of over 250 million, resumption of in-person schooling is advocated by some public health professionals based on the understanding that younger children are less at risk, as they do not have well-developed ACE-2 receptors in the lungs that enable the virus to enter. This must, of course, be considered along with the impact of the Delta variant on children who do get infected, sometimes severely, even though their numbers may be small. In Ludhiana, 20 students in two schools tested positive eight days after reopening on August 2, underscoring the need for strict protocols, testing and quarantining. Maharashtra has followed the textbook in setting up committees headed by Collectors and civic officials to decide on reopening, with optional student attendance. Such a decentralised effort is welcome, as it enables closures only in areas with high incidence. It is important to note that after 18 months of the pandemic, there is consensus on ventilation and distancing norms as low-cost interventions with efficacy next only to vaccination. In the Indian context, this should favour outdoor classes under natural or built shade, wherever possible. It is disappointing that teachers and staff have not been universally vaccinated yet, a lacuna that must be urgently filled.

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