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Defer reopening of schools

The news that schools in several parts of India will reopen soon is disturbing. Andhra Pradesh has already set in motion a phased reopening of schools to cover all the classes. The Pondicherry government has also partially reopened schools. The Tamil Nadu government is now planning to hold consultations before deciding to reopen. It is important to realise the dangers involved in doing so at the time of COVID-19.

Children can be ‘super spreaders’ of viral infections, and COVID-19 is no exception. After the summer or winter holidays, when schools resume, it is not unusual to see several children falling sick due to influenza, and soon everyone in their households also catches the infection.

In the case of COVID-19, the danger is not for the children but for their parents and grandparents. Thanks to the lockdown and the extraordinary precautions taken, a large number of the elderly in India have, thus far, been protected from the virus. This may explain the lower numbers of COVID-19 and also the very low mortality rates — perhaps, one of the lowest in the world. Right now, the COVID-19 situation in India is improving with the number of cases going down. If the schools are reopened prematurely, there is a big risk that the children can not only infect each other but also those in their homes.

It will be fair to assume that one child can infect at least four or five members of the family. Moreover, if one child gets the infection in a class of 50, most of them can be expected to get the infection. Hence, from one class, one can spread the infection to at least 200 to 250 people. When one multiplies this by the number of sections of the class and then the number of classes in the school, it is clear that even from one school, several thousand people face the risk of getting COVID-19. Thus, there is a definite possibility of a resurgence of COVID-19.

Second wave

Let us look at what has happened in countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. and rest of Europe. A second wave of COVID-19 is currently sweeping those nations. In some of these countries, including the U.K., lockdowns have been reintroduced. The U.K. was one of the first to allow reopening of schools. It is easy to preach to children to observe the usual precautions such as wearing a mask, maintaining social distancing, and frequent washing of hands. Let us examine each one of these. How many children can be expected to wear a mask throughout the school hours? Moreover, what will happen when they want to drink water or have their meals? The mask definitely has to be removed at that time. Can we expect children to wear the mask all the time without fiddling with it or taking it off? It is a common sight to see even adults wearing the mask below their nose, mouth or even neck. Can we expect children to do any better?

How can we expect social distancing to be maintained in a class of 50, when the classrooms are designed to seat 50 children close to each other? Talking of frequent washing of hands, do all schools have adequate water facilities to ensure that every child washes hands frequently? Even if yes, who is to supervise this? Are water, soap and sanitisers freely available in all schools? What about toilets? Is there enough running water in all the toilets in all schools? It is obvious that all these challenges can lead to a surge in the COVID-19 cases.

There is little guarantee that a second wave will not occur in India. If this occurs, it is likely to happen between December and February. Already there are reports that the decline in numbers of infection in India has slowed down. If the second wave occurs on top of this, we will be back to square one. In the worst-case scenario, a further lockdown will be enforced, leading to frustration, panic, further loss of jobs and a worsening of the already precarious economic situation. Is such a risk worth taking by prematurely reopening schools?

Five months have already passed, and in another four or five months, this academic year will be completed and then there will be two months of holidays before schools reopen in June 2021. It is very likely (at least one hopes) that by that time, vaccines will become available in India and be widely administered, ensuring that a significant proportion of the vulnerable (elderly) population will have been vaccinated. It therefore makes total sense to continue online classes till the end of this academic year and a fresh start can then be made in June 2021 with regular classes.

No immediate solution

People may argue that studying from home is difficult as the vast majority of the population does not have access to the Internet and are therefore deprived of quality education. I concede that this is true. However there is no immediate solution for this, as not only education but every other aspect of life has been affected in 2020. All attempts must be made to catch up, once the schools start after the pandemic is over. Perhaps the only exception that can be made will be for students who are to take up the Board examinations for Classes 10 and 12. Since there are only a few months left before these important exams are held, children of those classes alone can be allowed to attend school in person. In such a scenario, seating in class can be spaced out because many classrooms will be empty and thus social distancing can be maintained. Also being older children, they will be able to follow the instructions to wear a mask, wash hands and so on.

India and indeed the whole world have already undergone tremendous difficulties due to COVID-19, and we are just beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel with the numbers of COVID-19 finally going down. It just will not be prudent to take a big risk by opening the Pandora’s box and allowing COVID-19 to rule the roost again, by prematurely opening schools.

The author is the chairman of Dr. Mohan’s Diabetes Specialities Centre

drmohans@diabetes.ind.in

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 5:05:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/defer-reopening-of-schools/article33031581.ece

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