Covid-19: What you need to know today
India’s approach to schooling during the pandemic has been very different from that of most other countries. In Europe and the US (and even Australia), the emphasis has been on keeping schools open as long as possible.
On Wednesday, New York City decided to shut its public schools from Thursday after the city reached a positivity rate (seven-day average) of 3%. This is among the lowest bars anywhere in the US, but given New York’s debilitating first brush with the pandemic back in March and April, it is one that is perhaps justified. New York moved quickly to reopen some of its public schools in September, but with the second wave of the pandemic beginning to take hold of the city (and the state), it has been clear for days now that a closure was imminent.
The announcement of the closure came around the same time Unicef released a report on the impact of Covid-19 on children, which said that only 24% of schoolchildren around the world have access to Internet channels. India is relatively better off. A recent study by Azim Premji University found that 40% of children in 1,522 schools surveyed across 26 districts in five states had access to online methods of learning.
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India’s approach to schooling during the pandemic has been very different from that of most other countries. In Europe and the US (and even Australia), the emphasis has been on keeping schools open as long as possible. During phased lockdowns imposed in some regions in these countries and in Europe, schools have usually been the last to close – and the first to reopen. India kept schools closed for months, and allowed their partial and conditional reopening only in mid-October, although many states and Union territories didn’t do this till November. Some still haven’t.
India’s decision wasn’t entirely unexpected; nor is it unjustified. It is difficult to ensure social distancing, masking, and other protocols, in both public schools as well as private ones of varying hues. There’s also the issue of transport – many children use public or shared transport to get to school and back, and a large-scale reopening of schools could overwhelm a transport system that itself is returning to normal only now.
Yet, science is reasonably clear that the risks of returning to school are extremely low for younger children.
As the Unicef report points out “data from 191 countries collected from February to September show no consistent association between school reopening status and Covid-19 infection rates”. The report also refers to a study across 31 countries by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control that found “child-to-child transmission in schools was uncommon and not the primary cause of Covid-19 in children who were infected during the time that they attended school”.
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It is older schoolchildren who are more at risk (and, of course, teachers and staff). Many Indian states have allowed schools to reopen for older children, though, worried especially about those in Class X and Class XII (the two years when children appear for examinations conducted by their respective boards) who may either not have access to online resources or not be taking well to online education.
This columnist believes that states and Union territories should have reopened schools for younger children – despite the logistical and other challenges, it is safer for them to be in school, than older children – and also ensure, as Dispatch 108 on July 18 suggested, that every child has access to a device and an Internet connection. This would have helped address contingencies, such as the one New York is facing now, and also dealt with the issue of older children. Indeed, children from Classes IX to XII who are currently allowed in school in most states should be the ones staying at home simply because they face higher risks of infection (than younger children).
Finally, as the Unicef report explains, young children depend on schools for more than just education – “… nutrition, psychosocial support and health services…”
It would be unfair to deprive them of those.