A student gets her body temperature check at the entrance gate of the Angelika Higher Secondary school in Guwahati on September 21, 2020. Photo courtesy of Biju Boro / AFP
“I feel confused because I spent the last six months taking precautions and staying home, and now we’re suddenly being told it’s okay to go to school,” Kapil, a 17-year old, grade 12 student from a government school in the northern Indian state of Haryana, told VICE News. Kapil, who only disclosed his first name to protect his identity, has the option to rejoin their schools after six months.
However, Kapil’s grandfather has a heart condition and his family is concerned that if he attends school, he may pass on the infection to his grandfather. “I feel sad that I may miss out on important lessons,” said Kapil.
India’s Ministry of Home Affairs allowed the reopening of both private and government high schools, from grades 9 to 12, outside containment zones in a phased manner from September 21.
Indian government continues to ease restrictions even as the country has the second highest number of COVID-19 infections in the world.
The schools are expected to follow social distancing guidelines and operate with at only 50 percent capacity of teaching and non-teaching staff. Students also need permission slips or no objection certificate (NOC) from their parents. The central government left the final decision of opening up schools to the states.
Out of 29 states, seven have decided to open this week, while the rest are either in containment areas with surging COVID-19 cases, or are waiting for the situation to improve.
“Parents were asked to sign an NOC absolving schools of all responsibilities by saying that we shall be personally responsible if there is any untoward infection,” Aparajita Gautam, the president of the Delhi Parent’s Association, told VICE News.
Schools are yet to reopen in Delhi.
Gautam, who has a daughter studying in grade 12, is concerned that schools will not take the necessary precautions or be able to control restless teenagers in a high-risk situation. Recently, the Association conducted a survey amongst parents of students from 586 schools about students returning to their schools. 94.7 percent of parents surveyed said they would not be okay with their children returning to school. “When we’re seeing our hospitals overwhelmed and our healthcare system crumbling, how can we put the lives of our children at risk?” said Gautam.
Nirupam Kalita, a 16-year-old from Assam, attended his first day back at school. He noted that while social distancing was maintained between two benches, two students were made to sit on one bench. “It felt eerie to go back to school after so long,” Kalita, who is in grade 12, told VICE News. “I’m not sure if it was more helpful than our online classes, but it was good to see my friends in school.”
India’s COVID-19 lockdown impacted an estimated 320 million Indian students’ education. While the schooling system shifted to online education, nearly 70 percent of Indians in rural areas still do not have access to internet operated devices, including mobile phones. This prompted many families to sell their valuables to buy smartphones as learning aids for their children.
“We often send our kids for extra tuitions because they may not understand what is taught in a classroom. Online classes only made this worse,” Sanjeev Kumar Pathak, the president of Patna Parents’ Association in the northern Indian state of Bihar, told VICE News.
Pathak said that despite shifting education online, schools continued to charge students transportation fees, adding to parents’ financial burden.
“Initially we weren’t sure [about opening schools], but we couldn’t let our students suffer anymore. So we [parent’s association] decided to cooperate and allow schools to reopen.”
However, experts working to uplift education systems in India feel reopening schools was a rushed decision that could have been avoided.
“We are working with state governments on sharing digital content through radio and television in addition to WhatsApp and SMS so that reopening [schools] isn’t the only recourse available,” Manushi Yadav, head of operations at Pratham, an NGO that works on education in India, told VICE News. Yadav feels that reopening of schools should be a decentralised decision which should depend on local factors.
However, even as certain states have given schools the green signal, some schools continue to mull over the decision.
“We will take a decision towards the end of September, and only take in students who need extra guidance or remedials,” Rashmi Malik, principal, Salwan Public School in Haryana, told VICE News. Malik feels that face-to-face education is not required for students at this point.
More than 100 million public school students in India rely on the midday meal, a government scheme that provides a balanced meal or food stipend to school going children. While state governments promised to provide these meals to children, students were left in the lurch in states like Punjab and Bihar.
“The government had promised that our children will get midday meals and money. So far we have not received anything,” a parent in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar, told news agency ANI in July. This, in turn, pushed many children to take up laborious work in fields.
“There is fear and excitement about schools reopening,” said Kapil, who is worried about how not attending classes offline with his classmates will impact his education. “This is my final year, and I have to score well, but what can I do? I can’t risk going out as I have an immunocompromised family,” he said.
India currently has more than 5.49 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, and has the highest single day tally. It has crossed the U.S. for the highest number of COVID-19 recoveries globally.
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Via Vice News