On reopening of Educational Institutions

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By Dr. Ashaq Hussain

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented extraordinary challenges to the education system of the entire world. At the end of April-2021, as alarm bells began to sound again on the growing spread of the virus, governments and administrations announced closures of schools across Jammu and Kashmir like other parts of the country, in order to slow down the spread of the virus. The lockdown period kept on getting prolonged and there was no clarity regarding when and how to reopen schools. The situation remains the same and the administration is still grappling with the complex and high-stake questions of whether to reopen educational Institutions and how to operate them safely if such a decision is taken. These decisions need to be informed only by the most up-to-date evidence regarding COVID-19, about the impacts of school closures on students and about the complexities of operating school buildings as the pandemic persists.

Keeping schools closed to in-person learning poses potential educational risks. Students of all ages benefit from in-person learning experiences in ways that cannot be fully replicated through distance learning. The educational risks of extended distance learning may be higher for young children and children with disabilities. In addition, without careful implementation, virtual learning alone runs the risk of exacerbating disparities in access to high-quality education across different demographic groups and communities as the students with poor economical background and of rural areas are at more loss as the absence of devices and internet connectivity. Thus opening school buildings to some extent may provide benefits to such students.

However, reports and scientific data suggests that children are at a greater risk of serious, long-term consequences or even death as a result of contracting COVID-19, particularly during the much feared third wave. However, there is insufficient evidence with which to determine how easily children and youth contract the virus and how contagious they are once they do. Thus a significant portion of school staff as well as the students and parents are hesitant to return to in-person schooling because of the health risks. No doubt, some of the strategies for limiting the transmission of COVID-19 within educational institutions, such as maintaining smaller class sizes and delivering both in-person and virtual learning can be suggested but this will require additional instructional staff which is not possible at this time.

Similarly, some other measures such as physical distancing, avoiding large gatherings, hand washing and wearing masks are clearly important for limiting transmission; there is no definitive evidence about what suite of strategies is most effective for limiting transmission within a school setting when students, teachers and other staff are present. The fact that evidence is inadequate in both of these areas transmission and mitigation makes it extremely difficult for decision-makers to gauge the health risks of physically opening schools and to create plans for operating them in ways that reduce transmission of the virus. While many guidance documents for reopening schools exist, but this does not explicitly call on to reopening of schools, rather they pose a series of questions to consider in making decisions about reopening and allows for regional variation and flexibility. It also leaves administrative as well as education heads with a tremendous responsibility for making judgments about the risks of reopening while also responding to the needs of students, families and staff.

Thus weighing all of the relevant factors to arrive at a decision about reopening and staying open involves simultaneously considering the public health risks, the educational risks, and other potential risks to the community. This kind of risk assessment requires a protocol for monitoring data on the virus to track community spread. To ensure that the process of reopening schools is reflective of the community’s needs and priorities of the numerous stakeholders, educational institutions and administration will need to take care to engage a range of perspectives in the decision-making process. While some well maintained buildings, institutions may be able to implement most of the strategies, many institutions especially in rural area will need additional financial support to institute and maintain mitigation measures. Poor-quality buildings (i.e., those that have bad indoor air quality, are not clean, or have inadequate bathroom facilities) complicate reopening and may make it difficult to implement the recommended health and safety measures.

Finally, even if all of the mitigation strategies are in place and well implemented, it is still impossible to completely eliminate the risk of COVID-19 in schools. Therefore, it is incumbent on school officials, in association with local public health authorities, to plan for the possibility that one or more students, teachers or staff will contract COVID-19.

In response to this, there is a need for evidence-based guidance for which a board/committee can be constituted for guidance. The committee be asked to submit a report with, conclusions, and recommendations with respect to, what is known (and not known) about COVID-19, what is necessary to know about educational institutions in order to make decisions related to COVID-19,  how determinations about reopening educational institutions and staying open can best be made and  strategies for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in educational institutions and accordingly a guidance be provided on the reopening and operation of elementary, secondary as well as Higher Education for the remaining academic session.

The writer is Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Govt. Degree College Chatroo, Jammu and Kashmir and can be reached at [email protected]

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