Schools in a quandary

It is really worrying when the schools will reopen! Small kids have been in the confines of home for over 7 months now. It is uncertain when the pandemic will end. When will the vaccines become available? All are uncertain…

While it is true that the online classes and activities are being done, and the parent engagement in the learning process has increased, it is not easy to manage energetic children beyond a few hours. Unless there are many children in the family, social interaction will only be with the adults in the family. If they are not kept busy, they become cranky and throw tantrums.

In over 7 months, I can see a perceptible change in the speech habits, vocabularies, and behaviour of my 4 year old grandson. They lose their innocent childliness in speaking and sometimes use phrases that we at home use. I have begun to wonder if this typical evolution of a child’s behaviour is going through a big shift by the time they return to school. It potentially could be slightly different and may require correction and tempering. A program before the real lessons start? It is also not going to be easy for 4 year old kids to restart the habit and routine of ‘going to school’.

On top of this, there will also be the ‘wait & watch’ game. Every parent would want to wait for an initial period of a week, or even a month, until they are sure that everything is working well, and have gained confidence that everything is working ‘normally’, and that their children will most likely be safe.

Now, imagine all parents play the ‘wait & watch’ game, even after the schools reopen when the classes may be empty or sparsely populated. Good from a social distancing angle, but not good for education.

There will be addtional challenges of the strict SOPs to be followed even to enter the campus, and to ensure strict discipline of wearing masks, gloves, disposable shoes, and sanitisation — ensuring that the children will wash hands frequently with liquid soap and water. Since schools are not designed to provide exclusive bathrooms per student, they are the locus of spread of infection. One housekeeper can be allotted to each washroom and they should be provided a PPE kit to clean the washroom after every use. This means additional staffing, additional consumables, and monitoring by appointing a housekeeping supervisor. Every child has to be tested, and the parents have to provide a no objection certificate for their children to be admitted to the school. Crowding cannot be permitted, and it is also not practically possible to watch over them all by the floor supervisors and the several hundred cameras that are active in the campus.

The schools have to have an infirmary with a doctor and a technician available full-time, with all the equipment in stock, and they should be wearing a full PPE kit while with the children. Even if it is a mile cold, they cannot afford to take chances.

The entire school premises will have to be sanitised and fumigated at the end of every day. As per CBSE guidelines and the school building norms, the room sizes and the seating have to be provided to accommodate thirty children in a classroom. In case the social distancing norms have to be strictly adhered to, the building norms have to be changed, and new construction may become inevitable. The number of staff may also have to increase linearly.

Many schools may find this unviable, and may apply for closure. Are the other schools, including government schools, ready for taking the overflow?

In case the pandemic is over before the beginning of the next academic year, we could do all systems testing, and check out the SOPs multiple times before the buffer period of about one month happens. This buffer period should start well ahead of the first day of school.

This means a few schools might disappear, and only the education ministry will have a strategy to provide them education without comprising all the standard operating procedures. And, of course, without diluting the guidelines even in the government schools in cities and rural areas.

The central government has left it to the decision of the state governments to make a decision on the reopening of schools. The state governments have naturally passed the baton on to the district administration to continue to assess the local situation before reopening.

The question is, ‘who will bell the cat’, and when?

There are the other issues of teachers being laid off, salaries not being paid or delayed indefinitely. In some families both the husband and wife are teachers. They also have families to take care of. How will it work?

There are many schools that have collected fees in advance, sometime in February (did they have premonitions of the pandemic, or were they just cheating the system?). Some schools have collected fees and ‘money’ from the parents, with a so-called ‘discount’, for 10 years of their children’s study. What happens to such schools, parents and children?

Will the government authorities, starting from BEOs, DDPIs, directors, commissioners and the principal secretary take action on such schools that have violated many regulations? Can they also certify such schools that have run an honest organisation and have gone that extra mile to go beyond online lecturing by providing comprehensive learning materials, whereby the parents help the child in performing activities that are demonstrated by the teachers online?

While sincere and honest schools are innovating to make school education more interesting within the given constraints of the pandemic, it is to be noted that such genuine schools have also invested with a pure intention of providing superior and differentiated education. Such schools have also promptly paid salaries for all the staff.

The government has been sending orders that are inconsistent and have been obviously interpreted by the local officers to their convenience. Many parents refuse to pay fees, or they pay in part. The government had given clear instructions that any school that insists on the fee will be prosecuted, not to mention the confusion created during the initial months of the lockdown, when they kept changing their stand on online education multiple times, inconsistently.

The Government of India has promised Right to Education for all children in the country — the RTE. If the pandemic continues for long, some schools will die and some will survive, but the biggest loss is the discontinuity in education and the dilution of intensity.

The children who are today in 11th and 12th standards who will smoothly pass through the system, with easy assessments and poor learning, will become the doctors and engineers of tomorrow.

To me, the safest and the best option appears to be migrating to the home schooling mode, and the NIOS system. Maybe when things are back to normal, we can switch back.

About the author

D Sudhanva is the founder and CEO at Excelsoft Technologies, a globally renowned eLearning Solutions Company. With a focus on transforming education across the world, Sudhanva has steered Excelsoft to be a thought leader in Education Technology with robust products delivering innovative solutions.