It sure was a choice between the devil and the deep sea. There is little doubt that the state government has taken a huge gamble by deciding to reopen schools, even if only for Class X and XII students, at a time when the second wave of the Covid pandemic is not over yet. More ominously, experts are already predicting that a third wave is already on its way and could arrive in the next couple of months, possibly as early as August end.
In such a scenario, it is hard to foretell how long the classes can continue and whether they would have to be abandoned after a few weeks as cases rise, as had happened at the onset of the second wave. On paper, everything looks fine. The classrooms are being sanitized. Masks and thermal screening have been mandatory. Schools have been asked to stock sanitisers and ensure social distancing by making proper sitting arrangements, besides having an isolation room for anyone found with Covid symptoms.
But it is doubtful if the standard operating procedure (SOP) issued by the School and Mass Education department for reopening of schools can be followed in letter and spirit.
First, there is the question of intent. When adults keep flouting Covid norms with impunity, is it realistic to expect that children would obey them strictly? Second, even if the school authorities are keen to follow the SOP, do they have the wherewithal to ensure it? The vast majority of government schools in Odisha, as everyone knows, lack basic amenities like toilets, drinking water and even sufficient classrooms. That being the case, it is difficult to see how the schools can ensure proper hygiene and sanitation, ensure social distancing and earmark separate isolation rooms to keep the virus at bay. For all one knows, the government may have to shut down schools again if there is a sudden spurt in positive cases, as has happened in Telengana earlier.
The next big concern is vaccination, which has not even started for under 18s. More worryingly, even all teachers have not received both doses of the vaccine, which puts the pupils under great risk. With the Health department making it clear that inoculation of teachers is not possible on a priority basis, it is clear that many teachers would still remain unvaccinated when the schools reopen in two days’ time. But it is not clear yet whether those who haven’t been vaccinated would be allowed to come to the school premises. If they are allowed, it would expose students – and other teachers and staff – at risk. If they aren’t, it would mean fewer teachers. Given the fact that students have already lost precious time over the last one year and more due to the pandemic, they would fall further behind in the race against time to complete the course. It is good that parental consent has been made mandatory for students to come to school. Those who don’t can continue to avail online classes as they did before.
For all the risks involved, however, the government could not have waited endlessly for the Corona virus to finally leave the country for good before reopening schools. The experiment of online classes, as the School & Mass Education secretary has admitted, failed to reach about 60% of the students due to mobile and internet connectivity issues. In any case, both students and experts are of the unanimous view that online classes can never really be a substitute for good, old fashioned classroom teaching. Psychologists too have warned that prolonged absence from school and the bonding that it helps build can have a disastrous effect on the mental well-being of children.
For all one knows, the government could well be forced to shut down schools again if the circumstances warrant it. But the gamble had to be taken since there is no way one can predict when the Corona pandemic would finally take leave. With nearly a year lost due to the pandemic, prolonged shutdown of schools would have sent the curriculum haywire.
One can only keep fingers crossed and hope for the best.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)
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