“We are going to deny kids the full school experience, social interactions and that would be a regrettable travesty I feel. The lessons part of it can be tackled with technology, and have been done so wonderfully well. However, games, sports, extra-curricular, togetherness - may be next-gen kids will have much lower human interactions. Moreover, it’s just the school buildings that are closed. School teachers and administrators are working harder than ever before to ensure that teaching-learning is not compromised with at all” stated my friend Jimmy Lucknowwala as I engaged him in a dialogue about ground realities with reopening of schools in the country. There is no denying that school teachers, students, and families have faced unique challenges this year, including balancing of ‘work-from-home’ parents and teachers, ever-shifting schedules and hundreds and thousands of children who did not have access to reliable gadgets and/or faced hardships with technology. As we moved from extreme caution of closing everything down, most of us were well aware that school buildings would probably be last after even the last to reopen. Whilst online classes and interactions have proven to be a boon, the recent reopening of schools have proven an expected mixed bag, worldwide.
Preparations made at school levels
The school administrators and other stakeholders have continued to try to make sense of the challenging logistics of the reopening, despite the fact that there are detailed SOPs issued not only by the Government(s) but schools have worked hard to customize SOPs for their individual facilities.
Reduced class sizes, rotational school shifts, social distancing measures with sanitization tunnels and what not- wonderful and at times, many out-of-the-box solutions - by schools to ensure that the COVID-19 spread can be controlled at schools as and when the buildings re-open. In most places, kids were sectioned off into “micro-groups”, arrive at school at staggered times, eat lunch separately and have their own zones in the playground. All students are required to wash their hands every hour or so, carrying their own sanitizers and wearing masks. Desks are divided two meters apart, all education material must be cleaned twice a day and when possible, classes held in a hybrid fashion. Parents and visitors not allowed on school property.
And, we have seen a mixed bag of places where there has been good attendance after school reopening without a massive increase in positive cases, whilst there are undeniably many locations where cases have seen an upswing. The decision to send their children “back to school” wouldn’t have been easy for parents. As the online classes have been going well at most places, the reasons for sending kids back to school would’ve been a no-brainer, and perhaps rightly so. Where technology and access have proven to be a task, of course, parents have welcomed reopening.
Reopening for in-person teaching across the world
By the beginning of April 2020, 185 countries had shut down their schools because of COVID-19, affecting 89 per cent of the world’s children. Many developed countries have since reopened schools without experiencing significant outbreaks of COVID. There has been significant evidence from scientists finding showing that children are at lower risk of severity of the illness, or even death linked to COVID-19. In addition, time spent away from in-person classes, particularly for younger students, can lead to academic regression as well as reduced access to critical services, such as school meals, that could have short- and long-term effects. School staff has shown an increase in the detection of the virus, and that is something that was being anticipated as well.
School re-openings for in-person teaching have been and perhaps would be successful in locations where testing, tracing and treatment of infected people is on an upswing, so as to help flatten the curve of new cases. Unless there is a spike of cases spiralling out of control, it has been possible to reopen schools for in-person teaching with calm and intent. Let us take a quick look at what has happened in many parts of the world since the reopening of schools.
Schools in most countries have had social distancing norms in place, and many countries such as China and Thailand have insisted on bubbles for children to be in. Denmark, Israel, New Zealand, and South Korea started reopening of schools after a couple of months of lockdown. The modus operandi had been pretty much similar as described above, and school timings drastically came down. Canada differed from the province, but Toronto most successfully had schools functioning without much turmoil. Of course, the big challenge was in the USA, where the cases have been on the upswing and the President himself talked about cutting off funds of public schools that do not open up. The many States offered up options to parents of going fully “on remote” where learning would be online only, hybrid where there would be a mixed bag, or coming to school for learning. The pressures on the teachers for managing the options has been tremendous, but everyone has been trying to crack the right formula for making the best of the given situation. And there have been cases in Bolivia, Kenya, and many countries where there has been a spike in the number of cases, and the decision of reopening of schools has been rolled back. The Philippines too announced that there would be remote learning continuing till the rollout of a vaccine. Many European countries are advocating testing of students every three to four days to be sure. I strongly feel that the impact on the mental well-being of students being subject to such frequent tests is also something that has to be looked into.
The case for reopening of school buildings in India
In our country, India, I think we have done exceedingly well in ensuring that learning has continued online despite the fact that roughly 11-12% of households have had gadgets and online access. Even our teachers have upgraded almost overnight and this has now become common tales about how the pandemic brought forward the tech prowess by at least a decade. States are still undecided about when to bring students back into classrooms, particularly as the country recorded and keeps exceeding its highest single-day increase in COVID-19 cases (around November pollution season in North India). The states advocated opening up for senior grades for doubt clarification and preparation of Board exams, but the attendance for in-person classrooms as of now isn’t at the highest levels. Whilst European countries reversed with reopening for smaller grades (given the youngest have more immunity against the virus), in India perhaps there is a case to aggressively advocate for continuing online learning and as we move towards herd immunity, work on examinations for equal opportunities to one and all.
There has been a massive logistics and financial challenge schools have had to endure to ensure that there is safety and satisfaction for all concerned. It has been expensive. Making social distancing circles, providing masks and shields and PPEs to staff and teachers, deep cleaning of school buildings, tripling up on cleaning supplies, safety materials, the appointment of proper sanitization chambers, medical rooms, constructing of barriers, sanitizers and hand-wash, having backup first aid and breathing equipment, RFID thermometers - the list is long and endless and has kept administrators vigilant. Many countries such as the USA, Singapore and Australia have given funding to schools to buckle up and ensure that all facilities have been available. Such funding and support would be great for schools in India, too.
Student and parent feedback
Emboldened by a persistent drop in new cases and enthusiasm for restarting the nation’s economy, many countries have advocated reopening with caveats. There has been initial anxiety and apprehension, however, as the experts talk about living with the virus, perhaps sequential and easy-reopening is the baby step required in the right direction. In countries where there is an influx of foreign students, especially for higher education, there has been student feedback that on-campus experience is more important than the content learning by itself, and many students have deferred plans accordingly as well. Students have shown tremendous love for online classes, given the flexibility and comfort and access to modern tools such as flipped learning, collaborative projects and inquiry led classes, however, social aspects do show slight challenges. Parents, of course, have transgressed now from being questioning of online classes to now true partners in the teaching-learning process. The transaction can happen only when all stakeholders are tied-in together.
“I was getting stuck at home looking at the same routine things, the same people, and my friends only online. Even though I am not taking my mask off, I am getting fresh air. I’m able to be more open and spacious, instead of being crammed up” echoed a student I recently interacted with who has opted for in-person learning and happy about school reopening.
“Of course, there is a fear that my child will encounter the virus. However, you and I are as likely to get infected any which way if we are callous. Important therefore to be careful” said mother of the student above.
Firefighting and mental well-being
Of course, this has been one of the most demanding challenges on school management: what to do once a child or staff tests positive or shows symptoms after reopening. Whilst there is no right answer, the best way forward has been to face it head-on, follow all Government advisory which would mean isolation of the detected case, deep cleaning and most importantly, transparent and quick dispersal of information across the board. For instance, after reopening, countries such as the USA and Israel have seen some start-stop and jerked off-road for the schools. However, now there are more definitive actions taken by the school management. In Germany and Sweden, where infections are comparative now lower, classes are kept running and only those who have had direct contact with the infected student and/or staff have been sent to quarantine.
Given the anxiety and uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought about, I also firmly believe that each of us would react differently to the circumstances. Being indoors and isolated has impacted students, and it is unfortunate that whatever little time schools reopened, children have shown bouts of mental stress. Natural irritations, disturbances and changes in their body.
It is a crazy reality that when the dust does settle, education, on the whole, will emerge stronger than it was ever before, with more access for all towards education equality thanks to technology, and frankly, lack of an alternative. As our teachers innovate with new tools, so is the society at large; this is so heartening to see that real issues are being faced, tackled and discussed without inhibition. It is not unheard of where teachers are sharing ways of implementation with other members of the family of their students. Remember, teachers had to jump into the line of fire without prior warning or training, and have faced it head-on. Innovation does not stop with synchronous or asynchronous classes and even pedagogy has seen massive improvements despite the limitations. Kudos to schools and authorities as well who have braved the situation and synergistically looked at progress instead of being bogged down by the dawn of the pandemic. Thus far, the reopening of schools for in-person schooling has been a mixed bag. Nonetheless, slowly but surely we will need to come back to physical spaces and social proximity. It will take tremendous acclimatization, but I am confident this would step in the right direction for one and all.
Although Governments and education authorities have been amazingly progressive with suggestions and guidelines, ultimately, the decision of reopening of schools will depend on how well we, the people can maintain social distancing norms. A simple rule of the thumb should be - you should not suffer because I am stupid. Therefore, the onus has to be on every individual to defeat COVID-19 and maintain caution, no matter what. There is evidence now that closure of any establishment for an extended period of time takes that much longer to get back on track. Slowly, but surely, reopening of schools for in-person learning would help. A blended model of education is here to stay, and we will have to wait and watch trends on the number of cases, with a hand on the heart that a vaccine and cure medicine comes to us as a Diwali gift.
About the author: Kanak Gupta, Director, Seth M R Jaipuria Schools
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