Guest column: To open or not to open schools? The dilemma of parents during a pandemic
It is unusual for my rurally posted veterinarian husband to call home at noon, which is peak patient time for him. Even before my hello he asked, “Did you pay the school fees? I just received a reminder from school.” As soon as he got my affirmative reply, he went back to his patients but left me with some lingering thoughts.
When corona came knocking at our doors early this year, it was soon followed by “precautionary lockdowns”, a term alien to most of us until then. The lockdowns threw up challenges for which none had a Plan B. It brought with it a gamut of new experiences, namely health anxieties, job loss, work from home and for people with kids, home schooling. With the schools closed, classrooms became virtual and education altogether a new experience.
It has been five months since online classes started for our six-year-old. We are satisfied if not elated about how things have been academically for him and us. The school is doing its job of delivering services and we are doing ours by modulating these services and paying for them. We have made peace with the fact that our Primarian may not go to school this year and have already decided to not send him even if schools open. We, a middle-class family in a tier two city of India, are blessed enough to have both financial and human resources to make this decision. But then again, we form only a quarter of the Indian population.
A significant number of our fellow Indians do not have these blessings or means. The current pandemic has not been the same for everyone. Be it the story of a man from Delhi trying to reach his ailing son in Central India, another in Himachal Pradesh selling his cow to buy a phone for his children’s online classes, a girl from Kerala who committed suicide due to her financial inability to attend virtual classes or a woman from Karnataka selling her mangalsutra to buy a smart TV for children’s education; they all brought forward the social divide we live in. Some stories were told, others were not.
After three unlocks, the government has on its plate the final unlock to unravel. For the past one week there has been a consistent debate on whether the schools and colleges should open with this final unlock. As the government deliberates over opening educational institutes with parents (mostly privileged ones like us) opposing it, one does not know what the final outcome will be.
Financial, emotional challenges
Children in rural India predominantly and a significant number in urban India too, go to government run schools. With impediments in terms of quality, standard and delivery already existent in the government education set up, this closure has further troubled and distanced our disadvantaged segment. Education in pre pandemic times, then imparted free of cost, has a become a financial and emotional challenge for the incumbents. Impressions of the pandemic are felt deeply by parents who are struggling to pay for phones, internet and to help their children in academics due to absence of physical contact with teachers.
When we as parents of private school going pupils protest the opening of schools, we are depicting a myopic view. We are focused inwardly and are not reflecting on the implications of this closure on a larger segment who are rapidly running out of options. The true impact may not be that much but the fear of missing out may have emotional repercussions on our less fortunate youngsters who are aching to back to learning.
Minority should not influence decisions
Every stakeholder should have a say in the decision, it should not be made or influenced by a minority. I wonder how many parents whose wards are enrolled in government run schools signed those online petitions which are contesting opening of schools. How many of those who objected to schools resuming were dependent on mid-day meals for nutrition. I wonder if they are even aware of people like us who are diligently working to make 2020 a zero year for their kids.
The schools should open with parents given the option of sending or not sending their children there. The question should not be “to open or to close”, it should rather be, “to send or not to send”. Every child has a right to education, to a better future and to a better life irrespective of his or her social class.
(The writer is academic associate, Indian School of Business, Mohali)