Baby steps to reopen schools too little, must hurry: Experts

There is a clear divide in the response of parents in Delhi government and government schools to the resumption of offline classes. The former are wary of taking any risks as their children are yet to be vaccinated, while the latter are relieved to send their children to school as online classes are difficult to access. Most headmasters and experts are of the view that children should return to school otherwise it will be too late to bridge the learning gaps. Many of them believe that the need for parental consent should be abolished.

NEW DELHI: The lockdown was over long ago, business is on the rise, malls are full of people, restaurants are registering a boom in business and families are going on a holiday that was long postponed. And yet, when it comes to reopening schools, parents who are concerned about their children being vulnerable to COVID because they haven’t been vaccinated are starting to be skeptical. Across the world, however, experts are emphasizing that schools are not super-spreaders and children are losing their valuable time at a crucial time in their lives along with their mental, emotional and educational development.

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When it comes to children, governments face a dilemma. The Delhi government has sought parental consent for classes IX to XII, which are opened only for practical and project work. There is a clear difference in the response of parents in government and government schools. The former are resourceful and wary of taking any chances, while the latter are relieved to send their children to school as online classes were difficult to access and there was no way they could bridge the digital divide. Most headmasters, whether from government or private schools, and even experts, believe that children should now return to school. They say that if schools do not open now, it will be too late to bridge the learning gaps and develop children emotionally and socially. Many of them feel that the need for parental consent should be abolished.

Principals say they have found that the children are quite happy to return to school after a gap of almost 18 months. The Delhi government on September 1 opened schools for practical and project work for students of classes IX to XII in the capital. The government-constituted expert committee to reopen schools had suggested that classes VI to VIII should resume from September 8. However, the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) remained silent on this and the students stayed at home.

Since the reopening, attendance in government schools has been between 80%-90%, but the response in private schools has been mixed. The attendance has been better for class X and XII as compared to class IX and XI, which is clearly driven by the need to prepare for the boards. But in some premier institutes the attendance is as low as 5%-10%.

The headmaster of one such school in West Delhi, on condition of anonymity, questioned the hesitation of the parents. “If not now it will be too late. Children are studying comfortably at home and so are the parents due to which they do not consent. When children are going to the mall and for holidays, why not take them back to school Be brought! Classes III to XII can be opened easily and it is difficult to understand the government’s reluctance to do so,” she said. In her school, attendance is as low as 5%. She said she is exclusively under the EWS quota. Concerned for the underprivileged children who do not have full access to digital infrastructure.

The Annual Status of Education Report 2020 highlighted that just 11% of all students enrolled in both government and private schools were attending online classes, while 21.5% were using recorded video classes. The National Statistical Organization (NSO), which uncovered the stark digital divide, said the capital has the highest internet penetration. That was just 55% of the households.

There are schools like Sirjan School, Model Town, where only class XII students are coming for practical classes. The parent has withheld their consent for the others.

“The students are very happy to be back in the classroom,” said Tania Joshi, principal of The Indian School. “Many people have said that they were unable to express their opinion or doubt during the online classes. Direct contact with the teacher is important and sometimes they are unable to say anything due to peer pressure or other reasons. Even for subjects like fashion studies, experimental classes in the laboratory are of utmost importance.”

Divya Bhatia, principal of Amity International School, Saket agreed. “Students meet with friends and learn with their peers, but parents are still worried they haven’t been vaccinated.”

However, epidemiologist and public health expert Dr. Chandrakant Laharia said that vaccination should not be a pre-requisite for opening schools. “We are already behind. Currently, everything is open except schools. They should have been the last and the first to open because scientific evidence shows that schools are not super-spreaders,” he said.

This is the reason why some prominent schools are conducting orientation programs to instil confidence in the parents. The principal of Bal Bharti School, Gangaram, L.V. Sehgal hopes that in the times to come, parents will be sure that their children will be safe in school.

However, parents of students in government schools are pressing for the resumption of all classes. Rati Ram Meena, Principal, Government Boys Senior Secondary School, Sector VI, RK Puram, said, “We need to restart junior classes even more. For them, semi online activities are organized and all online classes are included. Joining the school will help them learn better,” he said. Another headmaster of a government school in Seemapuri, who did not wish to be named, said, “We want to open our schools because parents keep asking when it will happen. It is not in our hands. We cannot do anything until the government gives green signal.”

“We have a large number of students, and if students from classes VI to XII start coming, it may be difficult to fit them into classes. But running the schools in shifts could be an option,” said Sunil Kumar Jun, an English teacher at Government Boys Senior Secondary School, Ghitorni.

AK Jha, Principal, Government Co-Ed Sarvodaya Vidyalaya, Sector 8, Rohini, said, “We have prepared the schedule in such a way that each batch of children in a class comes to school twice a week. With this system, junior schools students can easily join,” he said.

Once all the students are back, the process of repairing the damage should begin. “Teachers can help students regain their confidence and spiral back from where many of them are in terms of learning ability. It must be a long process – more than a year – for them to compensate for the acute neglect. Anita Rampal, Professor and Former Dean, Faculty of Education, University of Delhi said. “Involving activities and challenging tasks, not done individually, but in small groups, will keep their motivation up and keep them back. Spring will allow. The government should not conduct the National Assessment Survey in November, as it was announced, for this would unnecessarily put pressure on teachers and severely hamper the process of patiently bringing back children.”

Experts suggest that state and district educational bodies should work closely with teachers to ensure a carefully re-imagined curriculum, and not mechanically remove certain topics or chapters.

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