[ Nellie N Manpoong ]
A child returns home after school. Her mother notices that she is wearing a Spiderman facemask instead of the sunflower mask she had been wearing when she had left for school. When the mother asks her about it, the child innocently says that she exchanged her mask with her classmate because they liked each other’s masks better.
This is one of the probabilities an online artist portrayed, especially among pre-primary and primary schoolchildren if schools reopen for physical classes.
When the ministry of home affairs (MHA) issued the 30 September order permitting activities outside the containment zones, it gave the state and union territory governments the prerogative to decide on the “reopening of schools and coaching institutions, after 15 October in a graded manner.”
It emphasized on allowing the same after assessing the situation and after discussions with the school and institute managements, but the MHA also put conditions which laid a large responsibility on parents: “Students may attend schools/institutions only with the written consent of parents” and “attendance must not be enforced, and must depend entirely on parental consent.”
Anyone who understands official jargon should understand that these two seemingly insignificant points subtly imply that the government cannot be held responsible if your ward attends school (with your written consent) and gets the coronavirus (Covid-19). This is the government washing its hands off dirty laundry.
Those with younger children may opt out of this entirely and continue with online classes or homeschooling, but it is not easy to keep young children glued to their seats and make them pay attention to a person speaking on a small screen. A parent or guardian has to be equally responsible and present during online classes, which may be much more difficult in a situation where both parents are working, especially if it is a nuclear family.
Some parents with children in pre-primary or primary level classes have already opted for private tuitions from neighbourhood teachers and have decided not to get them admitted to schools for the entire year.
Such decisions have a direct impact on the finances of the schools that helped the same children in their initial stages of learning, besides having given them an added sense of discipline and responsibility and teaching them to get along with people outside their immediate family and neighbourhood.
The decision to engage private tutors for children in smaller groups may seem like a better alternative, but on 3 October, it was reported that about 14 children in Andhra Pradesh’ Guntur district contracted Covid-19 allegedly from a tutor. The teacher’s wife had tested positive and he continued to hold his classes in violation of the Covid protocols.
Where does that leave parents with children who are in the senior or senior secondary classes and require subject experts? There is a small but significant advantage that it may be easier to hold the attention of a senior student during online classes.
Aside from the matter of poor connectivity and the added expense of acquiring a smartphone or a laptop/desktop computer, students of secondary and senior secondary classes are amply capable of paying attention to an online class and should take equal responsibility as their teachers.
However, not all parents are mathematical geniuses or laureates in literature and their wards may require additional help from subject teachers. Interpersonal communication with the teacher here becomes essential, which is perhaps one of the reasons that the state government partially opened schools for ‘doubt-clearing sessions’ for students of classes 9 to 12 from 21 September, following the direction of the union health & family welfare ministry’s Unlock 4 guidelines.
Before the government decides on reopening schools, it should consider that one rule cannot be applied uniformly across the state. The situation of each school as per location and infrastructure should be taken into account, and the government should consider applying different guidelines for different schools.
The government cannot expect one teacher to look after the health and hygiene of a class of about 30 students (or more in government schools), and teach their subjects properly at the same time.
Children in rural areas may not have access to the internet or smartphones, but schools may have smaller batches of students and may be able to take classes in the open air to maintain physical distancing if the weather serves right. In contrast, schools in urban areas may have online accessibility (which may fluctuate from time to time) but may also have limited space to apply the same.
The state governments have been given the freedom to issue their own standard operating procedure (SOP) for reopening of schools, and should see this as an opportunity to study the situation and make a decision only after consultation with the stakeholders, especially teachers, and not merely the management.
There will be hiccups along the way in implementing the best of designs, but it should not be at the cost of increasing our Covid count with the names of children on it.