Updated: Jul 15, 2021
Prolonged school closures have worsened learning outcomes and brought the nation's digital divide into focus
As the second wave of COVID-19 infections declines at nearly the same pace as it shot up in mid March, the question parents, children, teachers and school administrators are asking is: "When is it safe for schools to reopen?"
Costs of school closures are immense. Children without internet access are dropping out, progress in areas of child well-being are being reversed and mental health of children has been adversely affected
Even in regular times, studies show that there is a 2-year difference in skills attainment between the top and bottom performers of Class 10. Prolonged school closures has widened this gap. The communities most affected are those without adequate internet / device access and students of Government schools that are unable to conduct "live" classes.
A survey across 10 Indian states in November 2020 estimated that two-thirds of children in rural areas are likely to drop out of schools. Knock-on effects are increase in practices such as child labour and child marriage, both of which India has worked hard to eradicate. The highly successful mid-day meal scheme has also been disrupted with disastrous consequences.
What are Other Nations Doing?
Nations around the world have kept their schools, especially primary schools, open through stringent lockdowns that affected the rest of the economy. This approach recognizes the fact that the risk of COVID-19 for children is much lower than for adults. Data collected around the world seems to support this strategy, with no large outbreaks related to school openings.
Roadmap for India
Any decision must be fact-based and authorities must address concerns of all stakeholders
As India formulates an action plan for school reopening, a comprehensive risk assessment exercise with an appropriate risk mitigation strategy is vital. Here are some facts:
Children are less likely to be infected with the virus than adults.
Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) among school-age children is very low (much lower than the 3% infant mortality rate in India).
Concerns that a possible third wave with mutated variants of the virus can pose greater risks to children are unfounded. Data shows that age profiles of persons infected in the first and second waves of the pandemic are similar. In fact, the Delta variant is much less deadly (with a Case Fatality Rate of 0.1%) compared to the original variant (CFR of 1.9%).
Vaccines, including those approved for children, are effective in reducing the risk of serious infection and death, even for persons infected with the newer variants of the virus.
When the country conducts a risk benefit analysis, a decentralized approach to school reopening is key. Which is to say, there is no reason communities with low incidence of the virus that also have significant technological / infrastructural barriers to conduct remote learning should not open schools for in-person classes. Let individual towns / communities, armed with the required data, decide if it is safe to reopen with appropriate safety protocols. Even within communities, schools capable of operating a hybrid model can give individual parents / children a choice of remote versus in-person learning. For instance, all staff at the Brindavan Schools are fully vaccinated and the large campuses with adequate open spaces allow us to operate seamlessly, even with stringent protocols.
Now is not the time to ask if our schools should reopen, but how and when we can make it happen. The intellectual, social and emotional development of our children and the long term health of our nation is at stake.