Life first, schooling later

‘Is it safe to re-open schools’ in Jammu and Kashmir, as is being contemplated by the UT administration, is one key question we should be perhaps asking today, and asking fast. There may not be ready answers, but the question is too serious to be taken lightly. That formal education of children is very important cannot be denied. That a school is a living environment for pupils is well-established. That their return to schools has to be facilitated at some point in time cannot be ignored. But the bigger question that stares us in the face, perhaps, is:are we in a position to take the risk of re-opening of schools as early as June, as the concerned authorities have planned, according to some news reports? A cursory look at what the world is doing on such a critical issue (re-opening of schools) may help us find some solutions, though comparisons vis-à-vis many things could be grossly ridiculous. Indeed, a school in the UK, France or Germany cannot be compared with a school in Jammu and Kashmir, but since the re-opening is a major concern across the world, some comparisons may prove helpful in certain respects.

In its May 11 presser, the World Health Organisation clearly stated that officials looking to open or close schools must weigh a clear understanding of how COVID-19 is transmitted and its severity in children. It said the “decision makers might also consider if there are ways to set up classrooms to keep children physically separate during certain times of the day such as playtime or lunchtime”.

“Vigilance is all the more important, since much is still unknown about how COVID-19 impacts children and its actual infection rate in that cohort,” the WHO asserted.

The question, here, is: Are we, in J&K, in a position to ensure all this in our schools? If yes, how? Such measures, if at all these have been thought of by the J&K authorities, need to be clearly conveyed to the people to reassure them of the safety of their kids. Can we ensure physical distancing in classrooms in schools where there is just one room for, say, 100 students? What about lunchtime gatherings? What about social distancing in school busses and vans? Can the schools, both in rural and urban areas, provide hygiene facilities to all students for months to come?

Denmark was perhaps the first country in Europe to open its schools post-lockdown, but with strict social distancing norms never seen before. There was, as many students pointed out there after returning to their classes, “nothing like previous days they spent here” while some teachers suggested “it was a new world altogether”. The strategy was largely three-pronged: social distancing in classrooms and play fields, keeping students in isolated groups and maintaining a high degree of hygiene. At the micro-level, inside the school settings, children lined up at a distance from each other while washing their hands in washrooms and were isolated in small groups while playing during the lunch-time, even as teachers encouraged more and more outdoor activities to avoid strict classroom teaching. In Copenhagen, for instance, around 200 students of two grades found themselves in a completely different environment when they were made to study in the massive Telia Parken stadium where vacant seats were converted into classrooms given the large space required in their parent schools to maintain social distancing. A news report said the authorities in Copenhagen have identified 100 such facilities to create space for thousands of school children in line with the social distancing norms. In a school in the Netherlands, plastic shields were installed around students’ desks to help them maintain social distancing, while dispensers with sanitisers were kept at their disposal at doorways of classrooms. In a school in China’s Hangzhou, students were made to wear a unique headgear as part of social distancing in classrooms, drawing widespread appreciation from the people. The point is, are we, in J&K, in a position to have such arrangements and facilities in place?

In one of the important studies on re-opening of schools published in The Guardian on April 30, scientists cautioned against reopening of schools after findings suggested children could be as infectious as adults. The study, carried out by the team of leading German virologist Christian Drosten, found that “even though children tended to have far milder symptoms, those infected appeared to have the same levels of circulating virus in their body as adults. This suggests schools and nurseries could act as hubs of Covid-19 transmission if current restrictions are lifted.”

In its recent guidelines on reopening of schools, the UNESCO has rightly laid a lot of emphasis on why children must return to their educational institutions early and how countless children are missing out on nutritious meals in their schools. Yet, it has asked the countries to come up with robust frameworks and guidelines. “Establish conditions that must be met before schools are reopened. This will lessen the probability of a new outbreak and boost the confidence of parents, students, and teachers in terms of school safety. Ensure communities’ trust in the health and safety measures taken by schools to guarantee the well-being of returning students and to ensure that the risk of contagion is minimised,” the UNESCO said. “Renovate, improve, or install (as necessary) hygiene facilities like washrooms, toilets, and bathrooms; guarantee that handwashing stations will be available; and provide running water as well as, for example, soap and disposable hand towels.”

The question again is: will all these things be ensured for our children in schools? In many schools in J&K, there are no washrooms, let alone other hygienic facilities, while many are operating from dingy/unhygienic accommodations. Mere fumigation of schools and/or their whitewashing, before their re-opening, is not enough. It will be too little to be done to address the safety concerns of thousands of school-going children.

The moot-point is: Children cannot be turned into an experimental lab for Covid19 to see how things work or how they don’t. They are not Guinea Pigs or a cannon fodder to the normalcy politics in times of a pandemic. Many countries in the world like the UK, France and Germany are rethinking on reopening of schools while conducting serious studies on the subject in view of the massive risks involved. God forbid, if one child in a class in J&K tests positive, we can only imagine the consequences. There is a great anxiety among parents, which needs to be addressed on priority. No parent can risk sending his kid to a school if his safety is at risk. No schooling is worth a life. Can the government in Jammu and Kashmir, where cases of Covid19 are rising with each passing day, fully assure that it’s apt time to re-open the schools from June? If yes, we’ll be glad to know how; we’ll be equally glad to see the safety plan published in newspapers for parents to see and decide. After all, safety of kids cannot be jeopardized, come what may!

PS: The decision to re-open schools cannot be purely bureaucratic and one-sided. It has to be an inclusive one. Letting a team of health professionals, including the mental health experts, address the subject is what is required, alongside taking the anguished parents on board, before taking a final call. A strict administrative approach may not be a panacea to all ills besetting Kashmir. Covid19 is a pandemic that’s only spreading its tentacles far and wide, if statistics of deaths and positive cases is anything to go by. Re-opening of schools is a sensitive matter involving safety of children, which cannot be comprised at any cost, come what may. And the onus to ensure that safety lies on the government, not the people.