Educational Institutions – To open or not to open is the question
Continuous closer of educational institutions is impacting academic, social, emotional and psychological growth of students. Government needs to think out of box ensuring opening of these institutions as well as safety of the children.
Kashmir’s education sector has got the worst hit during the past two years. More than seventeen months have passed since schools, colleges and other educational institutions have been closed for the physical mode of education following the outbreak of the Covid pandemic early last year. Earlier, Kashmir’s education system was crippled for about six months due to the lockdown imposed by the government after August 5, 2019 occurrences.
Although the virtual mode of education is continuing here for the past two years, experts say that providing education through gadgets can never be a substitute for the physical mode of education. Furthermore, the recent revelation by the Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan that 70 percent of students in Jammu and Kashmir lack digital devices (smartphones, laptops, computers, etc), has put a big question mark on the ongoing virtual mode of education in J&K. Pradhan revealed this information in his written reply to a question in the parliament on August 2.
Despite that, the government in Kashmir seems to have no plan to reopen the school in the near future. Early this month, the LG administration announced an extension of closure of schools and higher educational institutes after reviewing the Covid-19 situation in J&K. The Directorate of Health Services Kashmir (DHSK), in its notification has already said that “to prevent the potential resurgence of COVID-19 cases upon opening up of educational institutions” vaccination of all faculty members and eligible students (more than 18 years of age) is imperative. However, the vaccination process in this regard is yet to be completed, which indicates that there are no chances of reopening the schools and other educational institutions in the near future.
In this scenario, experts in Kashmir say that to continue to keep students away from the physical mode of education would prove devastating in terms of loss to our education sector. They say the educational loss students in Kashmir have met during the past two years cannot be compensated and to continue the closure of educational institutions would simply mean the destruction of an entire generation. Experts argue that most of the students in Kashmir are not only losing their educational prospect but the continued closure of schools and other educational institutions reduces the physical activity of the students. Also, they fall prey to poor eating habits, drug addiction, and disrupted sleep patterns. They say that the continuous shut down of the schools and colleges has increased the risk of domestic violence, and online harm for the students as well.
Pertinently, the World Health Organization (WHO) has also emphasized the reopening of educational institutions. The WHO, on August 4, said that kids do not need to be vaccinated to attend school. Emphasizing the fact that schools should remain open, Dr. Katherine O’ Brien, a member of the WHO Covid-expert committee said: “There is no requirement for teenagers or kids to have to be vaccinated in order to attend school. That should not be a barrier for them to attend school. It’s about the protection of the adults around them, who are the ones who really have more risk of disease.”
UNICEF has also expressed its concern on continuous closure of educational institutions saying that the “reopening schools cannot wait.” A statement by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore and UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay reads “The losses that children and young people will incur from not being in school may never be recouped. From learning loss, mental distress, exposure to violence and abuse, to missed school-based meals and vaccinations or reduced development of social skills, the consequences for children will be felt in their academic achievement and societal engagement as well as physical and mental health. The most affected are often children in low-resource settings who do not have access to remote learning tools, and the youngest children who are at key developmental stages …that’s why reopening schools for in-person learning cannot wait.”
To understand the issues and problems pertaining to the continuous closure, the prospect of the reopening of schools and other educational institutions in the Valley, KASHMIR IMAGES spoke with several experts and concerned people.
Our department is keenly looking forward to the reopening of schools in Kashmir; it is a challenging task as the safety of our children is of utmost importance. Everything else is secondary. You must be knowing about the recent disturbing reports regarding the 3rd wave of Covid, with experts suggesting that the next 100 days would be crucial in terms of the surge in cases. Even some European countries have started re-imposing lockdown fearing the third wave.
In this scenario, it is not easy to decide on the reopening of the schools as of now. However, in case, the third wave doesn’t come and there is no further surge, I think the government will immediately announce the reopening of the schools. We already have a committee headed by the Chief Secretary, which is keeping an eye on the situation.
As far as the preparations for the reopening of the schools are concerned, our teaching staff has already joined their duties from August 2. Presently, we are making preparations for the re-opening of schools in terms of maintaining and ensuring proper sanitation, an environment of hygiene, and availability of water supplies in the schools, so that the students do not have to face any trouble when they resume their schooling.
Furthermore, we are in contact with the Institute of Mental health & Neurosciences (IMHANS) as well, to ensure post-pandemic psychological issues of students are addressed. For this, we have created a counseling cell in our directorate and as many as 100 counselors have been trained in all ten districts of the Valley to make their services available for the students after the reopening of schools.
I am sure the government announces the reopening of the schools as soon as the situation in terms of the ongoing pandemic improves. Till the time such decision comes from the government, I want to request parents again that they ensure their children are linked with the Learning Management System (LMS) TV, and radio classes on a daily basis.
Pandemic, of course, has had its adverse impact on all walks of life, but the education sector has become the worst hit. And it continues to be affected when all other sectors are started going on. The loss that education sector has faced cannot be compensated. We cannot get the gone by days back.
The virtual mode of education cannot be a replacement for the physical mode of schooling. Presently, we simply transfer the information to the students through the virtual mode. But we must understand that schooling does not mean passing information online. Schooling is something different than being in the virtual mode; rather, it is an overall and holistic development of learners. Physical contact with the student has a lot of effect on the psyche of a child and his or her personal development. In schools, children are taken to playgrounds, swimming pools, laboratories, and libraries for their grooming. All this is not possible through the screens.
Furthermore, through the virtual mode of teaching, the learning gaps become wider and wider with each passing day, and we cannot bridge these gaps. It is an uncomfortable way of the teaching-learning process. Even a teacher has to be extra cautious because he or she knows that not only the student, but the parent is also watching him or her teaching — an unwanted and disruptive intrusion. In our language, we call it zoom-bombing in the classroom. And because of this zoom-bombing, a teacher has to have a sixth sense active while he or she is in the virtual mode transcending the knowledge. Worst, at the same time the teacher is unable to ascertain whether the content of the message has gone across or not. We are not able to be interactive because the zoom-bombing is lurking in our minds. So we are unable to ascertain the learning gaps. If these learning gaps are left unattended, they become wider and wider, and it has a snowball effect. I am sure a time will come when we will not be in a position to plug those learning gaps. For example, if there are learning gaps in class 5th, they become compound in class 6th. Then, they become further compound in class 7th and 8th and so on.
To conclude, I would say that we should not deprive our children of the taste of schooling. We should now resume. I am sure if we look at the issue creatively, we can be able to come up with a beautiful mechanism. wherein we can bring the children to the school and also ensure their safety. For example, we go for odd-even numbers and then even divide these numbers further. In this case, we can have classroom consumption for a longer period of time. I would strongly suggest that instead of making a child sit home, which has now become traumatic, we should sit together and come up with a good mechanism to resume schooling. For that, we need to come out of our comfort zones.
I fail to understand why the government is hesitant to re-open the schools in the Valley when all other sectors have already been thrown open. Even the picnic destinations have been opened across the Valley and tourists from outside are being welcomed. When we look around, we see overcrowded buses moving on roads, social gatherings being organized without precautionary measures. I wonder to see that Covid SOPs are not being followed even in the official functions.
In this scenario, one wonders that what stops the government from reopening the schools here. We have been emphasizing the reopening of schools for the past several months but our suggestions seem to be falling on deaf ears. We emphasize the reopening of schools because we cannot afford to hold our lakhs of students back from the schools anymore. They have already lost plenty of crucial time of their life during the past two years. Continuing to keep these youngsters away from schools would simply mean stopping the progress of their physical, academic, psychological, and social development. That is why most parents are worried about the future of their children. I think due to the lack of political structure available here, people do not have access to the power corridors and that is why they are not being heard. Unfortunately, the concerned officials are also disconnected from the ground. They are not aware of the feelings of the parents and common people.
I don’t say that the school should be opened without any preparation or set guidelines. To ensure the safety of the students, we can create a required mechanism for the re-opening of the schools here.
The Covid has created a paediatric mental health crisis or child rights crisis in terms of continuous lockdown, and closure of schools and other educational institutions for the last 18 months globally. Globally, public health experts have stressed that lockdowns have put one in seven students at risk of poor mental health. The persistent lockdown will result in a huge number of school dropouts, more chances of child marriage and child labor.
However, Kashmir’s case is the worst. Our institutions have been closed almost for the past two years. This, for our children, has resulted in learning gaps, lack of person-to-person interactions, loss of routines, social contacts/spaces, loss of predictability, loss of structures. And eventually, this critical situation has left our children vulnerable to poor mental health.
Therefore, the opening of schools is a matter of science and the principles of child rights but in no way a matter of politics or a matter of hurry. The decision of school reopening must be based on public health data.
The Ministry of Education has left the timing and manner of school reopening to the discretion of each state, but here in Kashmir, we see disparities between public and private school systems.
The school education department cannot return to the pre-pandemic school structure, they need to be proactive taking care of all SOPs, calling all stakeholders before a formal opening of schools. The parents, teachers and students need to be trained to accept the new structure and challenges. Schools must be opened in accordance with local health conditions. Various options are available, starting in-person school with adolescent’s initially or alternate models of attendance, such as odd/even manner, rotational, alternate day or morning/evening shifts. Also, additional infrastructural requirements are needed for the implementation of physical distancing, hygiene, washing facilities and health screening. As we know the public education infrastructure is not up to the mark in our part of the land, a complete convergence, coordination, consultation, and a proper tracking based intra agency mechanism between the education, health, community, municipal, local bodies, panchayat, NGOs is needed.
Our children are the future of our nation, and schools are places where these young minds are educated and groomed for their well-being. Therefore, it is painful to see schools closed for such a long time. I would say that with the continuous closure of the school, our future is at stake.
Sadly, our youngsters are already vulnerable to social evils like drug addiction and what not. The continuous closure of schools and other educational institutions has worsened the situation in terms of the negative impact on the minds of the children, and it has adversely impacted the psychological health of our boys and girls. Sometimes I fear that continuous closure of schools might be one of the reasons for the recent incidences of suicides by the youngsters.
When we talk of our children, we must not forget that these vulnerable minds do not have sufficient avenues of entertainment available here in Kashmir. They have nowhere to go for outings and playing. We lack sports infrastructure for our children in the Valley. They have only schools where they can learn, play and have fun with their friends. Schools are the places where children are educated, guided, and groomed. Since the situation in terms of pandemic has improved and all other sectors of life have already resumed normal activities, the administration should think about throwing the schools open. I wonder why they don’t do it. Sometimes I feel our schools are being targeted unnecessarily.