The reopening of schools in a handful of states is the clearest sign that we are learning to live with Covid. The pattern of reopening schools is not yet a coherent strategy as it is not uniform across India but received wisdom of the last 17 months suggests that each state or region must take its own decision as best fits the situation in its fight with the virus. The threat from the virus may never fully recede, which means that education cannot be held up forever. There is a compelling need to first put the older children back in schools where they are at their happiest among peers and where their learning can take the traditional, in-the-classroom shape again. Enough damage has been done to their education in the year and a half after normal life was disrupted in general lockdowns.
The anxieties regarding exposing children to the epidemic will never be doused easily. Since the reopening of schools is largely experimental now — with less than one in five students actually turning up in some states though provision has been made for at least 50 per cent capacity — the results will be known only by the end of the month when Covid test results and hospital data trickle in.
Meanwhile, Covid protocols must prevail even though social distancing is probably the very anathema of life in school as students have come to love. Most things may be a work in progress in an emergency-like situation prevailing in Covid times but it is very important that all school teachers and support staff, especially school van drivers and attendants, be vaccinated as soon as possible for only widespread vaccination can mitigate the fallout from infections.
The former British PM Benjamin Disraeli’s “I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best”, must reflect in the precautionary measures schools are taking against Covid. A contingency framework would have to be in place if the odd school becomes a super-spreader. Lockdowns and their economically destructive restrictions are passé as India is being kept mostly open. Running schools is for the larger good of the emerging generations and a risk well worth taking lest the young forget the best ways of learning, which are all classroom-based. There are states like Uttar Pradesh which have opened schools for all classes while most have made it for classes nine to 12. Large scale testing among school-going students is vital, so too provision for regulating isolation for those youth who fall sick.
On-site testing will hold the key to knowing the real effect of schools reopening but no governments have yet revealed plans on how they are going to measure the impact. Young students have so far demonstrated that they have adapted to wearing the mask at all times. Given their spirited youthful ways, it is to be seen if this primary safety protocol will continue to be observed as they mix in and out of classrooms. Tough measures, particularly in the maintenance of classroom hygiene by double-jabbed cleaning staff, are also crucial to how safe the brave move to get on with student life in Covid times will prove to be. What we have is an encouraging start to school terms but we must be prepared to take quick decisions in case of contingencies arising.