K-12 Schools: To Open or Not to Open
| Ranjana Joshi, Thought Leader, Education, Bangalore - 03 Jun 2020

The Ministry of Home Affairs has stated that they will take a decision regarding opening of educational institutions in July. School reopening needs to be thought of from multiple perspectives. There have been countries like South Korea where schools had to be closed again after reopening when they saw a second surge in numbers.

By Ranjana Joshi

Schools across the globe have been shut down for the past 3-4 months in the wake of the corona virus pandemic, affecting millions of students worldwide. In India too, educational institutions have been closed since mid-March. Slowly, as the lockdown eases, there are talks of reopening schools as well.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has stated that they will take a decision regarding opening of educational institutions in July. School reopening needs to be thought of from multiple perspectives. There have been countries like South Korea where schools had to be closed again after reopening when they saw a second surge in numbers.

Challenges of Online Classes

Many schools have transitioned to online classes, but it comes with its own set of challenges.

  • The main challenge being the quality of education, which is definitely not at par with face to face interaction. The teachers are constantly innovating ways and means to bridge the gap, but while e-learning can complement classroom learning and give amazing results, it cannot equal classroom learning by itself.
  • Keeping a track of online classes, assignments and ensuring that their children’s academics are as per school expectation, while continuing the office work and housework proves to be very demanding for parents.
  • High screen time especially of young children, is another growing concern among educators and parents.
  • As lockdown in most part of the country eases, and parents start going back to office, the problem of childcare for the entire day is starting to become an issue for a large number of working parents.

With studies being adversely affected across schools and many students, especially in rural areas not being able to carry on their classes at all (online medium not being an option in many regions of the country), there have been growing suggestions and proposals to open schools at the earliest. Adding to this list, will eventually be the working parents, who, as their offices open, will prefer schools to sending their children to daycare or being alone at home.

Is it safe to reopen schools?

The question is, is it really safe for students to go to schools when covid cases are still on the rise? Can schools ensure social distancing? Even if detailed SOPs are made for functioning of the schools, is it reasonable and fair to expect students to follow those SOPs?

For example, if masks are made mandatory for students, staff and teachers, do we really see children adhering to the SOP for the entire day? There are adults, even doctors, who bring down their masks from time to time, especially when they have to speak, and more often, if it is for a long period of time. To expect young children, who love to run, to talk incessantly and to have fun with other children, to wear face masks properly for the whole day, and maintain a 3-6 feet distance between themselves, is not a valid expectation.

Schools are not designed to ensure social distancing. On the contrary, most schools are designed to ensure that children mingle with each other. The classes, cafetaria, laboratories, activity areas, transport buses, none of them, in their current state and with full student strength can ensure any semblance of social distancing.

Proponents of an early opening of schools say that children are not affected by the virus. While it is true that cases of children being affected are low, but some have shown very severe symptoms and not many parents who are aware of these would like to expose their children unnecessarily. As per WHO, many children in Europe and North America showed symptoms of multisystem inflammatory condition with some features similar to those of Kawasaki disease and had to be admitted to intensive care units. Even after recovery, there is a significant impact on the heart of the impacted children.

Some parents with whom I spoke said that if the schools reopen while covid19 cases are still prevalent in their city, they would prefer to continue online classes or look at home-schooling option if possible, rather than send the children to school. As a mother pointed out ‘Jaan hai to jahaan hai’ (If you have life, you have the world).

Possible Options

One option is that only a percentage of students attend school at any given point in time. Therefore, schools can have students coming in 2 shifts (half the students in morning and the other half in the afternoon) or students can come to school on alternate days.

This however assumes that with 50% strength, students can sit far enough. Many schools in the country have so many students in every section that even with 50% strength, a proper social distancing will not be possible.Such schools will have to work with one-third students coming on one day – whether that will be feasible or not, will need to be seen. This will also not solve the issue of having a caregiver at home for working parents, on days that the child will be at home.

Some schools might also decide to have face to face classes for grade 6 and above and online classes for grade 1 to 5. They can thus reduce section size for older students and make use of the available primary rooms for student seating with proper distance. This will also ensure that children below 10 years of age remain at homeand thus protect the most vulnerable age group in children.

Education can never come above Safety of Children

Even if government decides to allow educational institutes to open, schools will have to consider the concerns of the parents. If there are grandparents who are very old, living with the family; or if there is anyone in the family who is immune-compromised, then the children cannot be sent in an environment where they are surrounded by so many people, where they can potentially become carriers of the virus. It could pose a health risk to a family member. Such families might want to consider online classes for a much longer time. Schools might therefore have to consider a combination of online and face to face classes.

Many of these options might lead to increased costs for the schools. They will have to incur technology costs to ensure smooth online classes or a combination of online and offline classes. If they have 2 shifts, or increased sections for grades 6 and above, the teachers might have to put in extra hours.

Transport will be another big problem for most schools. With buses usually being filled to capacity for any given route, ensuring even a semblance of social distancing will result in much higher number of buses plying on all routes. This will lead to much higher costs for the schools which will in turn be transferred on to the parents.

Even when the schools are permitted to resume face to face classes, giving parents an option for face to face or online classes, for another term atleast, might help them maintain social distancing more easily and also bring peace of mind among parents. Thus parents who do not have an option but to send their children to school either because of their work or because of lack of proper internet connection or devices to carry on online classes, can send their children to classrooms while parents who are concerned about exposing their children can continue with online classes.

Thus, online classes for at least younger, higher risk children, with occasional tutorials for doubt solving in a batch of 5-8 students at a time might be a better option till the time it is safe to go to schools. Conducting face to face classes with only a section of the school attending the classes at any given time is another option, especially for schools which do not have the means to conduct online classes.

All in all, I believe that opening schools before the daily new cases in a city are negligible, might bring a lot of discomfort among parents and might involve risks for students and their family members. In most countries, the governments are waiting till the daily increase of new covid19 patients is on a constant decline and the increase in numbers is very low, before they consider opening schools. Education can never come above the safety of the children.

All pics courtesy: pexels.com

ALSO READ

E-Learning during Covid Era – Effectiveness and Impact

By Ranjana Joshi, Bangalore - https://bit.ly/2XdIyv


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