Parents, students, administration watch with bated breath
Conditional opening of schools & higher educational institutions ….
Finally, after more than 18 months since the outbreak of Covid pandemic, the administration in Jammu and Kashmir has initiated a process of gradual reopening of the schools and higher educational institutions with certain conditions. To begin with, the government has decided to allow reopening of schools for class 10th and 12th along with higher educational institutions, with strict Covid-19 SOPs. Schools for class 10th and 12th would be permitted with in-person attendance not exceeding 50 percent of capacity on a given day, while as the colleges for in-person teaching to commence physical class work is subjected to 100 percent vaccination of students and staff against COVID-19. A special drive to vaccinate the eligible students has already been launched across the UT. Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha, on Saturday said that “We are trying to vaccinate students aged above 18 years on priority and professors and teachers in the academic institutions as well because the aim is to restart the institutions.”
The government decision came at a time when a puzzling public debate on whether the educational institutions, given the uncertainty related to ongoing pandemic, should be thrown open or not. Though, the recent government decision is largely appreciated, some experts believe that reopening would not be that easy. They say maintaining Covid SOPs in schools and colleges would not be a simple task. Those who appreciate the government initiative in this regard, also urge that novel methods be adopted to ensure the educational loss that the student met with be compensated.
KASHMIR IMAGER spoke with some of the experts to know their views on the topic. Here are the excerpts:
We recently had a three-day training session with the principals of degree colleges from across the Valley, to ensure Covid 19 SOPs are fully followed once they are thrown open for offline education. During this training session, we got the impression that 99 percent of the staff members of colleges is already vaccinated. However, we want to ensure 100 percent anti-Covid vaccination of the students above 18 years of age. We have kept medical teams for the vaccination available at every college. For example, in Srinagar, we have as many as 50 medical teams, comprising two people in each, at service for vaccinating students.
Sadly, some of our youngsters, because of their mistaken beliefs and unjustified rumours, are hesitant to get themselves vaccinated. Particularly, the females are skeptical about the vaccine as the rumours have been spread that the vaccine might cause infertility among the womenfolk, which is not true.
Thus, during the session, the principals were requested to help the awareness campaign emphasizing the importance of vaccination against Covid. It was also decided that none of the unvaccinated students would be allowed to enter the college. Any students entering the class should at least have taken the first dose of the vaccine.
After assessing that the active Covid cases are really on the decline in Jammu and Kashmir, the government has decided to re-open the colleges in UT. It is a great initiative because the continuous closure of educational institutions for past more than a year has been causing a huge loss to student community. It has also been drawing its impact on the psychological health of the students. Although the online mode of education has helped us carry on the educational activities to a significant extent, however, it has some problems as well. Most importantly, this mode of education lacks the psychological and emotional bond between teachers and students. This system of education lacks proper monitoring of students by teachers and conducting foolproof examinations is also very difficult in a virtual system. Also, some students from weaker sections of society do not have the gadgets to get benefitted from online education.
Therefore, reopening colleges for offline education is an excellent step. Soon after this decision was announced, college administrations geared up. We at Amar Singh College were privileged to host a 3-day Programme on Covid Appropriate Behaviour (CAB) and Vaccination, for the principals of all 76 Kashmir Division Colleges last week. In the session, Dr. Rouf Ahmad Rather and Dr. Umar Nazir, two public health experts from the Divisional Covid-19 Control Room (DCCR), shared their expert opinion and guidelines through detailed PowerPoint Presentations. They explained the ways and methods to maintain CAB and the importance of vaccination of staff and students to contain the spread of the virus at the campuses. The experts also answered queries from the participants and helped them to clear some misconceptions and apprehensions during open discussions. The principals were requested to share these guidelines and information with staff and students in their respective colleges; and ensure 100 percent vaccination of students and teachers.
As far as my college is concerned, I am delighted to inform you that our 100 percent teaching, non-teaching, and contingent staff; and 82 percent of students are already vaccinated. I am sure we will achieve the 100 percent vaccination target in coming couple of weeks. We have also taken some other necessary initiatives to ensure safety. For example, we have declared that no student without wearing a mask would be allowed to enter the college premises, and all students and the staff members will have to pass through thermal scanners at the college gate. Students have been asked to get the soft or hard copies of their vaccination certificates along. To ensure sanitization, we have kept sanitizers available for the students at various points inside the college.
Due to all these initiatives, I am sure reopening of our college would be safe and secure. However, given the roll of our students (around 5 thousand), maintaining social distance would be a great challenge for us. Therefore, we will have to decide how to reduce footfall in the college. We might be introducing either an odd-even formula or semester-wise attendance of the students. We will finalize it within a day or two.
The overwhelming pandemic, in which the world lost lakhs of people, did not leave any aspect of life unaffected. The greatest worry was recorded in the field of education. The pandemic has brought significant disruptions to education across the globe.
Fortunately, in this crisis, the online classes appeared as the savior of the system. In the beginning, there were some problems of initiation, but as time passed and Covid didn’t recede, the online system got a stronger basis. I have my own experience of peeping in those classes and heard some lectures by some teachers, they were really good. The teachers had prepared well and the way they conducted online programmes was really excellent.
The fact is that I don’t have some big thing against such classes. However, I have my doubt only when we talk about teaching. In my opinion, learning, which is a strong programme for student development, has to be thought out keeping all parameters in view. Learning is sometimes for overall development and sometimes for partial arrangements like skill development.
Since the educational institutions are being opened, again I find it necessary that the online classes must not be downgraded. We should find ways to make it more perfect and fast for regular studies.
The “syllabus cut” no doubt gives relief, in some measure, to the students in as much as it seeks to offset the fall-outs of the pandemic. For about two years now, the bulk of our student population across the spectrum is, so to say, out of school. Reduced courses or curriculum could well help them get over a barrier, access a benchmark to qualify for an exam. That’s not the end of the story, though.
The academics and experts, in particular, should be engaging the huge learning deficit poised to become a crisis. The government would need to factor this critical component in its scheme of a graduated, progressive resumption of schools and other educational institutions.
Given our past experiences, winter and summer vacations would offer a window of opportunity if we were to move beyond exams and attempt to address the looming learning crisis. Special courses and coaching, focusing on pre-assessed gaps in achievement levels of students vis-a-vis the ordinarily expected outcomes may be worthy of consideration.
Not till long ago, when winter break in schools used to stretch to about three months, we would use at least a month of these vacations for “remediation education” as it used to be then called, aimed at duly identified supplementary education objectives. The teachers, braving all odds, would spend a month or so to supplement the learning attainments of children in select schools or clusters. And, in the process, a worthwhile and visible improvement would invariably happen.
Since our education system is facing a crisis, such initiatives of remedial education could prove helpful. The learning-deficits persist regardless of your “qualifying” a particular Class or Course and this reality need to be accepted and addressed. It’s doable if backed by a corresponding will. We should use winter vacations in the winter zone and summer vacations in summer zone to provide remedial or supplementary education to students — proceeded by a proper Need-Assessment and accompanied by certain incentives to teacher deployed for the purpose.
Additionally, we need to explore an appropriate futuristic “hybrid model” of education to enhance learning possibilities for our students. Thankfully, the rank and file of our education system have risen to the occasion and, with great courage and commitment, moved on to engage with the online mode of education since the outbreak of the pandemic. As it is, adversities also throw opportunities if only you have a will to spot and seize them. The challenges posed by the pandemic have forced a switch-over to the online platform, which otherwise we could have not come about as soon. Now is the time to further build on this change.
The teacher preparation, a life-long learning process, has been a priority all through as a critical ingredient of any development paradigm in the education sector. The training modules would need to be more inclusive by reference to the pandemic-induced changes and challenges. We’ll need to think of a suitable re-structuring now with continuous training and capacity building.
‘To be or not to be to school’ is the predicament of the parents, students, and the teachers. On the one hand, the pandemic effect is still writ large on the face of humanity and on the other hand, keeping the children home has jeopardized their mental health and educational development.
Given the situation, the parents are indecisive whether they should send their children to school and expose them to the greater risk of infection particularly when children have not been vaccinated yet or to keep them home and continue with the virtual classroom transaction. The parents are equally aware of the ill effects of keeping the children home which has resulted in abnormal behavior, virtual fatigue, and virtual boredom and, of course, the element of jingoism having crept in the children because of non-availability of the sources of giving vent to their pent-up feelings.
The things become further compounded when Coronavirus undergoes continuous mutation and things like 3rd wave, Delta, and Delta+ versions are fast emerging on the scene and not all in one vaccine is available yet. This is really a precarious situation and it is in this situation that the stakeholders have to decide to be or not to be.
Now in this situation, the authorities have decided to reopen schools, though partly, on the experiment basis and to begin with 10th and 12th classes will start functioning that too with only 50% attendance on a given day, subject to the strict adherence to the Covid -19 SOPs.
In my view, it is not a bad decision. No decision is good or bad in itself but it is the means to arrive at the desired goals of decision that renders decisions good or bad. We have, on the one hand, Wuhan experience where educational institutions are functioning normally and on other hand, we have American experience, where because of the reopening of educational institutions the Covid-19 has raised its ugly head again and thereupon, Delta or Delta + variant. To me, keeping children home will definitely result in a great loss in terms of mental and educational development and it is better to give a chance to the opening of educational institutions subject to the strict adherence to all the Standard Operation Procedures and any slightest aberration will throw things out of gear.
The Administration seems to have geared itself this time and a meeting of stakeholders was held wherein measures to check the spread of pandemic were discussed thread bear. The administration assured the stakeholders that they have enough vaccine stock available and the administration is just a call away. Now it all depends on the head of an institute to ensure the strict adherence of the SOPs and come up with a foolproof mechanism to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Even though the pandemic has not fully subsided yet, and the world is still on halt, the decision of re-opening the educational institution is a welcome step simply because we cannot effort further loss to our education system.
Also, we cannot rely continuously on the online system of education. First, because in this mode of education students lack human interaction, and a grooming environment, which are primary parts of education. Second, the online mode of education has its own flaws and imperfections in terms of the teaching-learning process. For example, as a law student, my education is imperfect unless I do not have professional sense, which can be attained only in offline classrooms. To attain knowledge about my subjects, I have an ample number of resources, including Google and YouTube, at my disposal in this era of knowledge. But having the knowledge of a particular subject through the virtual world is not enough. A student needs grooming in the real world to be more articulate, sensible, and people-friendly. That is why human interactions and face-to-face conversations are the most important part of education.
Moreover, as of now, the Covid is still a mystery. We have little knowledge about this little virus. Even the scientific research about the Covid vary with each other, and the experts too seem to be clueless about the various aspects of this pandemic; and the WHO sometimes appears to be like a research-less institution, like many of our news channels are nowadays.
Sometimes I wonder why all walks of life, except educational institutions, are working as normal if this virus is really dangerous and deadly. If everyone is equally vulnerable to this pandemic, why are only schools and colleges closed down?
I fear that our whole educational system and institutions would be rotten if they are continuously closed. Our teachers and students are already grappling with tremendous psychological pressure due to the unpleasant situations and lockdowns caused by the pandemic during the past more than a year. They desperately need a sigh of relief now, and throwing educational institutions open would be a great relief to everyone.
The decision of re-opening educational institutions is wise and rational. I would say that even the schools should be opened as well. However, having said that, I would emphasize that the Covid Appropriate Behaviour (CAB) should be strictly followed by the students and administrations of educational institutions. It is sad to see some students hesitant to vaccine. Since the experts have said that vaccination is the only way out to be safe in this pandemic, we should not hesitate to get vaccinated.
Furthermore, I would say that the authorities, keeping in view the educational loss to students, must introduce some means to compensate for the loss. Students in Kashmir have not suffered only due to the Covid, they have already lost several months of education post-August 5, 2019. The educational loss of the past two years needs to be compensated, at least to some extent. In my view, teachers can be asked to go for the mentorship of the students.