Reopening of schools is becoming a hot button issue with states like Andhra Pradesh, Goa and Assam mulling over opening schools by as early as September, even as most parents, across states, have rejected reopening without a vaccine being available. At the core of the debate is the fact that steps to address the loss of school-hours—such as online/on-air teaching—won’t reach a large section of the student body. Given classes-as-usual are simply not possible at present—total reported infections in the country are now over 2.2 million, with over-60,000 daily cases—the education ministry, as per The Hindustan Times (HT), had asked the health ministry to develop a ‘standard operating procedure (SOP)’ for schools; an SOP reportedly awaiting the home ministry’s approval talks of reopening with only a third of the students and faculty attending in shifts/rotation to enable distancing (with senior classes opening first), mandatory masks, equipping classrooms with oximeters, and training teachers to spot respiratory distress, among other requirements.
Policymakers need to carefully consider the science of spread before deciding on whether to reopen schools or wait, even as they work on the ‘how’ of reopening. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics says that younger children are likely to be drivers of Covid-19 spread in the general population, reporting higher concentration of viral RNA—indicating a higher load of viral particles—in the upper respiratory tract. While it can’t be said with certainty whether they are as likely to transmit the disease as older children or adults, given how behavioural changes to prevent Covid-19 will be quite difficult to enforce in this cohort, it is perhaps best to postpone reopening of the pre-primary and primary levels for now. Another study, in the latest edition of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Report Weekly, links SARS-CoV-2 infection to all cases of Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children reported in the US till July 29, with a high number (35%) of severe cases.
Declaring the school year ‘lost’ due to Covid-19, as Kenya has done, could seem too drastic a step, but India needs to pick the right cues from the experience of countries that have tried to reopen schools in the midst of the pandemic. While the US president Donald Trump tweeted “OPEN THE SCHOOLS!”, given the federal structure of the country, the decision largely rests with the states, indeed, city administrations. The New York Times reports that 97,000 children in the US tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 in the last two weeks of July—with a total of nearly 338,000 infected children reported in the country so far, this means nearly a quarter of the infections were reported in just the two weeks. A handful of schools, in the states of Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Indiana and Louisiana, have reported transmission among students and staff within a fortnight of reopening. In Israel, a ‘second-wave’ of infections has been directly linked to schools—one Jerusalem school’s case is thought to be the largest single-school incidence in the world.
So, as the states and the Centre mull over reopening of schools vis-a-vis the losses to learning and development of children, they will need to strike a careful balance. A tailored approach, mapped against high-incidence districts, will likely be a better idea than a one-size-fits-all move. A hybrid of online/on-air and classroom teaching with strict enforcing of preventive measures could be thought of, at least till the time the pandemic can be fought off with pharmacological interventions.