The COVID-19 pandemic has unarguably emerged as the biggest disruption in the field of school education in the last 100 years. It would take many more months before the medium- and long-term impact of school closure is fully comprehended. A joint report by UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank, ‘The State of the Global Education Crisis: A Path to Recovery’, released in early December 2021 had estimated that in the first 21 months of the pandemic, schools in countries around the world were either partially or fully closed for an average of 224 days. During the same period, schools in Indian States were closed for physical classes, for almost twice the duration, i.e., between 450 days to 480 days. Since the publication of this report, the Omicron variant (B.1.1.529) of the SARS-CoV-2-led surge globally, and the resultant third wave of COVID-19 in India further delayed the re-opening of schools. By March or early April 2022, when re-opened, schools in India had cumulatively closed for physical classes for around 570 days to 600 days — one of the longest school closures in the world.
COVID-19 will linger
However, just when schools, parents and children have begun getting accustomed to regular offline classes, there are reports of an uptick in COVID-19 cases in Indian States including a few cases of children testing COVID-19 positive. This has again whipped up the demand from some sections of parents to move back to hybrid classes. There have been suggestions for the partial closure of schools or even temporary but full closure of schools, if there are a few cases of COVID-19 in a school. In fact, a few private schools have even moved to the hybrid mode.
This demand for shifting to hybrid mode or that of partial closure with every single case in schoolchildren is not scientifically supported and could prove a big threat to school education in India. The reason is simple. SARS-CoV-2 will stay with humanity in the months and years to follow. COVID-19 cases are likely to be reported from all settings — including among schoolchildren — with an unpredictable rise and fall. Therefore, it is impractical, unnecessary, unscientific and unethical to even consider an ‘open and shut’ mode for schools.
Adverse outcomes are low
Children are a part of family and society; therefore, when COVID-19 cases are being reported in a community, children are also likely to test positive. However, two years into the pandemic, what is proven is that while children do get SARS-CoV-2 infection at the same rate as adults, the probability of adverse outcome of moderate to severe disease is very low.
The news of children being detected COVID-19 positive is drawing more media attention after school re-opening. However, there is no evidence that children have contracted the infection in schools. In most cases, they are more likely to have got the infection from family members. In fact, even before schools were re-opened, successive seroprevalence-surveys across Indian States have reported that nearly 70% to 90% of all children had already got infection (thus protected).
Twenty-five months into the pandemic, the SARS-CoV-2 infection is not an immediate concern; what matters is the outcome of that infection. Most healthy children do not develop severe outcomes, a situation which has not altered even with the emergence of newer variants of concern. In the foreseeable period — possibly for many months — COVID-19 cases would not be zero in any age group — this includes schoolchildren.
Therefore, it is time that we, as a society, stop worrying about children contracting COVID-19 infection. The hybrid mode of learning or partial closure of schools are not the options any more. Rather, the focus has to be on how to keep schools fully open.
What the challenge is
The recurring discourse on whether to move to hybrid classes or when to close schools is proving a big distraction from more pressing challenges in school education, namely, ‘the learning loss’. It is time we plan and act to ensure learning recovery.
First, the re-opening of schools does not mean that all children have begun returning to school. It is time the Education Departments in every State lead the process so as to ensure that every school in every district ensures that no child has dropped out from the education system, and that every eligible child is enrolled. Special attention is needed for the enrolment of all children and girls, especially poor, backward, rural, urban slum-dwellers. Children who are eligible for admission in nursery or classes one and two will need special attention. This would be a key step in tackling pandemic-related enrolment inequities.
Second, the learning loss during the last two years is humongous and ‘learning recovery’ should be the priority of every State government. There has to be focus on the need to assess the learning level of children and then strategise for learning recovery. It is also time to consider consolidating the curriculum and increasing teaching time. To ensure the success of such efforts, school teachers will need support and the training to accommodate the learning levels and needs of children. The mentor teacher initiatives in government schools in Delhi is proof of the potential of what can be achieved if teachers are supported well. Across India, in both government and private schools, we have very motivated teachers who can contribute to the process. It is time to support teachers. Innovative approaches and the participation of civil society organisations working in the field of education need to be explored.
Third, looking at the pandemic in the ‘rear view mirror’, it is time that every Indian State re-assesses the challenges in school education. Subject experts must examine the recommendations made in the National Education Policy 2020 in context of pandemic-related challenges, and fresh operational strategies must be developed and implemented in an accelerated manner. All of this would require additional government investment. In India, government spending on education accounts for about 3% of GDP, which is almost half the average for the education spending of low- and middle-income countries. The time has come for both the Union and State governments in India to increase financial allocation for school education.
Fourth, there are studies and reports that mental health issues and needs in school-age children have doubled in the pandemic period. This calls for making provision for mental health services and counselling sessions for the school-age children. The Education and Health Departments in Indian States need to work together to ensure regular services such as school health, mental health as well as a health check-up for schoolchildren. In early March 2022, 20 school health clinics were opened in Delhi and every State needs to start similar initiatives to strengthen school health services. These initiatives should lay the foundation for more comprehensive approaches such as ‘health promoting schools’.
Fifth, mid-day meal services have resumed after a gap of two years. There are 12 crore children in India whose nutritional status is dependent on these school meals. Any disruption in the supply of school meals also means a lack of sufficient nutrition for these children, and thus their weakened immunity and higher susceptibility to various infections. The supplementary nutrition programme in schools will essentially ensure that children remain protected from the severe outcome of COVID-19. In addition, learning from the pandemic, hand washing with soap and water and toilet facilities should be improved in every school, especially in rural and government schools. This will also prepare schools in preventing the possible spread of COVID-19 and also reduce other water-borne illnesses in school-age children. The role of both hygiene and nutrition in better learning has been proven for a long time.
Social, moral responsibility
It is time to recognise that the risk of COVID-19 in children is very low, and far lower than other prevalent health concerns such as dengue, malaria and typhoid, and that the benefit of in-person education is far greater than any risk. Real learning does not happen in the four walls of homes or through online classes but it happens when teachers and other children are in school. Studies have shown that every month of school closure results in the loss of learning ability lags by two months. By that calculation, the learning of children in India has gone back by almost three years. So now that schools are reopening, we cannot start as if nothing has happened. We cannot be distracted, unnecessarily and repeatedly, by unscientific demands to move to hybrid mode or consider any form of temporary closure again .
Realising the challenges posed by the pandemic, the Government needs to take every necessary step to bring school education back on track and develop a road map for learning recovery. Governments, parents, communities and schools need to work together. It is our moral and social responsibility towards the future of this nation.
Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya is a primary-care physician, public policy and health systems specialist, and an epidemiologist based in New Delhi