India has been in the state of health emergency since March 2020. The Government’s response has lurched from half-baked lockdown to various stages of unlock. However, one aspect has remained constant throughout. The educational institutes of all hues remain shut. The Government has steadfastly maintained that the safety of children is the first priority.
This measure is, of course, very well received by the parents. Now, the next step for parents is to worry about the education of their children. Online education has been going on in various forms, but it cannot be expected to replace the in-person teaching of schools & colleges. The parents are anxious that the children have no learning loss and do not miss out on their study.
To allay this fear, the Government of India has proclaimed “The Centre will not allow this to be a “zero academic year” without any teaching or examinations.” On 10th August 2020, Ramesh Pokhriyal said “A decision on physical reopening of schools & colleges is likely within 10-15 days”. To quote the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource Development “This is appreciable”.
On 8th June 2020, Union School Education Secretary Anita Karwal said “The Centre was framing guide-lines for safe reopening of schools. Guidelines are likely to include rigorous health screening and quarantine protocols, hygiene measures, and staggered attendance for students allowing for blended learning from classrooms and home”.
What’s and where’s the plan to reopen schools & colleges?
The Government’s announcements are well-intentioned. However, seemingly, they are missing out on the detailing. More than 15 days have passed since the Minister’s remarks, but there is no further discussion on dates to reopen schools & colleges. More than two and half months have passed since the Secretary’s remarks, but no guide-lines have been published by the Government to reopen schools & colleges.
This is baffling. The schools & colleges cannot reopen from the next day of the reopening announcement. They need the time to train the teachers and the support staff, they need the time to improve on the school infrastructure; they need the time to prepare for the reworked academic calendar. All these preparations require resources, time and money.
The diverse universe of schools & colleges operates on different band-widths and capabilities. Some of them may readily be able to make the required changes. Many of them may require hand-holding in various stages of the proposed changes. Few of them may require additional manpower and financial support to help them navigate the changes.
All the above will become clear only when the purported plan by the Government shows up, which continues to be under wraps.
What to do when infections happen?
Once the schools & colleges reopen, the few students/teachers/support staff will inevitably get infected with COVID-19. What’s supposed to be the threshold for the educational institute to continue its operations and when should it shut down? If required to shut down, what should be the contingency plan? When to reopen next? What happens if again the infections soar?
Rather, the first step to reopen schools & colleges would be to define the acceptable level of infections and the rate of spread in the ward/locality/geographical unit. In the Indian context, the students are spread all across the city/state/country and not limited to a neighbourhood. A large number of students stay away from their families to pursue their education. How do deal with the infections and the treatment in such a scenario?
Seemingly unrelated but a relevant aspect of handling infections with the reopening is to decide on the state of other activities. Should the functioning of religious places/restaurants/non-essential travel etc be curbed to reduce the chances of infections for educational institutions? COVID-19 is making us prioritize. Till now, we have prioritized safety of children. Now, to prioritize the education, if something else needs to be stepped down, so be it.
All these will be up for debate only when the Government shows what it has thought on the subject.
The parents, teachers, support staff are all stake-holders
The Government keeps mentioning about the educational institutions as a single entity. The focus on management is vital as they are responsible for the decision-making of their organizations and their buy-in is a must for the reopening. They are the ones who would be ensuring that the Government guide-lines are adhered to. But, they are not the only ones.
None work in isolation in today’s inter-connected world. Depending on the Government guide-lines, every parent needs to make their planning and decisions. Risk acceptance levels vary for different people. Some may perceive the Government’s steps to be unsafe, may want to hold back their wards and they should have equal right to do so.
Teachers and support staff are extremely important stakeholders in the entire process of reopening. Somehow, they lack opinion and seem to be taken for granted. They are the bread-winners for their families and would be worried about what happens to them if they get infected with COVID-19. An insurance and treatment plan for them would give them confidence about resumption.
Again, no clarity for any of the stake-holders. Rather, it does not seem that the Government is even contemplating their participation in the decision-making process.
No Zero Academic Year
No Zero Academic Year is a wish for every parent, student and all the other stakeholders too. The Government is desperate for a No Zero Academic Year, presumably to keep all the constituents happy, but it is not showing equal desperation in coming up with inputs and strategies to achieve the desired output. To repeat, what’s and where’s the plan to reopen schools & colleges?
The seamless transition to the Government guide-lines to reopen schools & colleges is not going to happen over-night. It is going to require lots of preparations, moving back and forth, also to ensure that the weakest of them do not fall through the sieve. The ball will start rolling only when the Government makes its plan public. The sooner, the better.
Wish the Government shows the same urgency for the plan to reopen schools & colleges as conducting JEE/NEET and college final year exams.