With Unlock-2 set in motion, the MHA has categorically prohibited opening of schools till July 31, 2020. Expectations are rife that school & colleges would reopen on August 1, 2020 for the academic session 2020-21. The Central HRD minister & UGC have also indicated that School/colleges are to reopen on August 1. But reopening of educational institutions pose a lot of challenges & perils that must be addressed before reopening schools/colleges in the COVID affected environment.
These are unprecedented times when the entire human race is facing medical, social and economic threats. One of the major challenge is the education of our children in a safe environment. One can compromise on the quality of education, the infrastructural facilities available in the schools & lack of extra curricular activities but the SAFETY of the children is a factor which no one is prepared to compromise. Opening of malls, markets & offices cannot be equated with the opening of schools. Casual approach in opening of educational institutions is intolerable & unimaginable. This issue needs to be seen from the perspective of all concerned stakeholders- the students, the parents, the school management, the teching/non teaching staff of the institutions and the government.
It is difficult to understand the challenges of opening the educational institutions in such difficult times and the risks are indeed huge as we have to deal with the health and life of young children and no one can be permitted to take any risk in this matter. It is true that physical education can in no way be equated with virtual education because the students are not able to interact with each other & collectively solve problems or work together on projects. It is equally true that education in schools include co- curricular activities and contests and both indoor & outdoor games. But as thinkers around the world have put it that this year is not for gains & achievements but for ‘survival’ and the key for survival is physical distancing and use of masks. The school going children are immature and may not be able to resist the temptation of shaking hands or hugging their friends in schools. This may be not be conducive to the health of the students in the present times who may get infected with Covid-19 even if one of them carries the infection.
The first & foremost problem is the mode of transport for the school children because it is of utmost importance that the buses are safe to commute and do not carry Covid infection. Although, it is advisable that the parents drop & pick up their wards but it is not possible for working people to do so. Moreover, the biggest problem is to identify the infected children. The Infra red thermometer screening is neither accurate nor reliable as it is just an indicator. Spraying sanitizer on school dress is not effective on children already infected by Covid-19 as the spread of the same is through droplets coming from the mouth & nose as a result of coughing and sneezing. Moreover, the students and staff who are asymptomatic carriers cannot be detected or isolated.
There was a survey conducted amongst the parents whether they wanted to send their wards and if so when would they like to send them to school. Majority of them showed concern about their children and asserted that they would either send their children after they are vaccinated against Covid-19 or after the pandemic ends as they cannot take any risk regarding the health and life of their children. Moreover, both the parents and the students have expressed satisfaction to the virtual classes being conducted by schools as the students have become abreast to latest technology involved in online classes and are not finding any difficulty in learning through these classes. May be in the post Covid era, a blend of physical and online classes may become the order of the day suitable for the schools as well as the students.
There are also numerous difficulties in running physical schools in the present times because the number of students cannot be accomodated in the classes because physical distancing of 2 meters is mandatory. Moreover, the students cannot put on their masks for the entire school time. The cooling systems, the water dispensers, the restrooms and the cafeterias cannot be 100% safe so as to guarantee safety against Covid-19.
It is pertinent that the Apex Court while hearing the petition filed by the Indiawide Parents Association challenging the “opt out scheme” for CA exams observed that the situation due to pandemic was not “static” but “dynamic”. Hot spots are changing and so are the rate of infections. The left over exams of ICSE, ISC & CBSE could also not be conducted due to the onslaught of Covid to avoid risk of infections. Similarly the CA examinations could not be conducted due to concern of safety of the students.
The process of Lockdown due to the Covid pandemic is not over yet although to boost the morale of its citizens, the Government calls it Unlock 1 & Unlock 2. The reality is that more than 20000 new cases are being reported everyday & 19000+ deaths have been reported till now. The condition of the country is indeed precarious and the ever increasing number of new cases and deaths are a cause of grave concern and posing a big challenge to the Government.
It is therefore that the government plans to reopen schools/colleges in a staggered manner but looking to the worsening scenerio everyday, it does not seem judicious to reopen educational institutions.
The only way out that appears is to strengthen the IT network & technology so that the students in the rural areas & remote areas can have sound & uninterrupted connectivity to virtual classes. This will put an end to issues relating to health, transport and healthy meals. Virtual classes is the only option available which solves the issue of uninterrupted safe education & Emotional well-being. However, it cannot be denied that the poor, the rural & remote students are the worst affected due to lack of computers/smart phones & lack of connectivity. The Government needs to look to their awes & provide them the necessary infrastructure & subsidies to continue their education else ‘Right to Education’ enshrined in Article 21-A of the Constitution would be a ‘mockery’.
The Government should bear in mind that the school management is most reluctant to reopen the schools/colleges as they are afraid of criminal/pecuniary liabilities that may arise due to any mortality due to Covid-19. The educational institutions have taken a decision not ito reopen till the pandemic continues to pose threat to life. There is mounting risk of being sued for criminal negligence & implication of the management for negligence and for claim for pecuniary damages.
If the Government orders for reopening of the educational institutions it is certain that both the Parents Associations & the Schools would move to the High Court or the Apex Court to make the move optional.
The educational institutions would be in a state of flux whether to open the instruction or not for fear of criminal & pecuniary liabilities on one side and safety of the students/ staff pitted against each other. The disobedience of government order for reopening may also attract action of the government. It is incumbent on the government to merely permit & not compel the educational institutions to open at their own discretion.