Covid-19: SOP ready, no plan to open schools for now
The government has had standard operating procedures or SOPs for reopening schools for at least a month, said people familiar with the matter, although one of them added that there are no immediate plans to open schools when the current restrictions, in place to manage the coronavirus disease and limit its spread, end on August 31.
While the SOPs have been approved, the people added, asking not to be named, the final decision on reopening schools will be taken by the ministry of home affairs.
The technical wing of the directorate general of health services in June drafted SOPs on reopening educational institutions in the lines of SoPs issued for reopening of malls, hotels, restaurants, gymnasiums, yoga classes, religious places, they said, but having the SOPs in place doesn’t mean schools will reopen as soon as the restrictions end.
The issue is a contentious, controversial, and complex one -- everywhere in the world. The Australian state of Victoria, for instance, has just shut schools for six weeks after a resurgence of the pandemic, although this hasn’t been traced back to the schools. In May, Israel was forced to do the same after a so-called second wave of infections -- and in the country’s case, these were directly attributable to the schools. In the US, some states have reopened schools, but many have also shut down again following Covid-19 infections.
The education ministry requested that the SOPs be created after other facilities were being opened in phases, the people said. They added that the health ministry drafted them. They recommend getting only senior school children in at first -- and in shifts -- and stringent social distancing norms with neither student nor staff strength exceeding a third of pre-pandemic strengths.
Still, one of the officials familiar with the matter said, “the decision of reopening around September 1 seems remote as of now but since it is a dynamic situation, and decisions tend to change as per requirement. The SOPs will come into effect only when a decision is taken in this regard.”
To be sure, the decision is also likely to be left to the states.
Part of the desire to reopen schools in India also stems from the digital divide which affects many students from underprivileged backgrounds from attending online classes.
A second official added that the issue of schools reopening came up for discussion ahead of the last set of guidelines issued on July 29, but that no decision was taken because” taken as it was believed that education ministry was still engaging with states, and more importantly with parents.”
The first official said that several rounds of discussion with the states have been held and that “most states and almost all parents are not in favour of reopening.”
The discussion on schools comes amidst a surge in Covid-19 cases. India crossed the 2 million mark in terms of number of cases on Thursday, becoming only the third country in the world to reach this number. It added its second million in exactly three weeks. There has been no let up in the number of daily cases too and the pandemic has clearly moved into the hinterland and the peninsula.
The people said that the SoPs suggest reducing student strength in a class, maintaining physical distancing, wearing of masks, training teachers in picking up early signs of respiratory distress, and keeping gadgets such as pulse oximeters handy . Those students already suffering from any of the chronic respiratory illnesses should avoid attending, they added.
According to paper published in JAMA Pediatrics by doctors from the infectious diseases and pediatrics departments of the Ann and Robert H Lurie Children’s Hospital, Chicago, and from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, children younger than five have higher viral loads and could be “drivers” of the infection in “the general population.” The study was silent on the role of older children as potential super spreaders.
Doctors say that the government should wait for some more time before going ahead with reopening of schools.
“More time should be given before schools are reopened. Children will be moving in closed spaces and could get infected and be carriers. They will bring infection home, and many will have grandparents and other vulnerable people at home who will be at risk. It is a strict no-no not only for places where disease burden is high but also in places where we are seeing a steady decline, the government should wait and consolidate the gains. Ideally, I would say, open only next year,” said Dr Rahul Nagpal, senior paediatrician, Fortis Healthcare.