Schools all set to reopen, but is Tamil Nadu ready for the Big Day?

Parents and doctors support offline classes, but are concerned about safety of children

Schools
The Tamil Nadu education department has instructed schools to show some leniency. For example, attendance will not be mandatory. Students will neither be ‘forced’ to read aloud from text books nor ‘compelled’ to answer teachers’ questions.

At a time when the Tamil Nadu government is preparing to reopen schools for classes 9 to 12, there are concerns among doctors and teachers about how the state plans to go about it. On its part, the state education department has taken steps to make students feel comfortable in the class.

Tamil Nadu schools reopen for classes 9, 10, 11 and 12 from September 1.

The state government’s move to open schools comes as a big relief at a time when parents are fed up with online classes. But at the same time, they are concerned about the safety of their wards and want to know how the offline classes will be conducted.

What are schools in other countries doing?

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Though schools all over the world have mandated that teachers should follow basic protocol in offline classes like wearing masks, checking temperature before allowing students in etc, some countries have gone the extra mile and tried different ways to make students comfortable in the class.

For example, in China, the class size has been limited. If there were 30 students in a class, only 15 will be attending on Mondays and Thursdays and the remaining 15 will be attending on Tuesdays and Fridays. In Denmark, schools first opened for lower grades, i.e., for those younger than 12 years of age. This was done because children in this age category are at lower risk of catching the infection. In Uruguay, students facing difficulties in accessing online classes were allowed first. In some other countries, schools focused on increasing ventilation.

Also read: Third wave likely in Oct: Are we prepared to treat our children?

In Tamil Nadu, Thai Thamizh Palli in Villupuram district has followed a concept of ‘micro classrooms’, where 50 per cent of the students come to the school in the morning to attend moral classes. They leave after having lunch provided by the school. The remaining students come in the afternoon and follow the same pattern (lunch + moral classes).

‘Reopen schools to know how many are still seeking education’

The Tamil Nadu government too has decided to allow students on a rotational basis. It also came up with a set of Standard Operating Procedures such as ensuring sufficient hand washing facility, vaccination of teachers and students and making enough provisions for tablets of Vitamin C, multivitamin tablets etc to be given to children.

“In most countries, the governments are still going with hundred per cent online classes. All the gadgets and facilities required for the purpose are provided by the government. In the US, students were given food packets, even though the classes were conducted online. In India, particularly in Tamil Nadu, we have failed to do either of the two,” said well-known educationist Aysha R Natarajan.

During lockdown, many children quit education and went back to work to support their families, said Natarajan. “The government should reopen schools for some months at least to know the headcount students left and devise ways to bring them the others. Besides, the government can think of using school hours as vaccination camps,” he said.

No attendance compulsion or class work, please

In order to make students feel comfortable, the education department has instructed schools to show some leniency. For example, attendance will not be mandatory. Students will neither be ‘forced’ to read aloud from textbooks nor ‘compelled’ to answer teachers’ questions.

PB Prince Gajendra Babu, general secretary of State Platform for Common School System, said the teacher’s attitude will be the base for school reopening to become successful.

“First of all, the school must connect with the nearest primary health centre. So, if a student shows symptoms of COVID, he or she can be taken to the hospital and investigated. The teacher should ensure students do not panic. They must show utmost care of their physical and mental health,” he said.

Allow primary classes first

Amidst discussions on conducting safer in-person classes, doctors have suggested reopening schools for the lower grades first. Balram Bhargava, director of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, a public health expert, that it is a good idea to start primary classes first.

“Compared to adolescents (those between 12 and 18 years of age), the ones who are younger than 12 have a limited probability of getting affected by the coronavirus. They have a fewer number of ‘Ace 2 receptor’, the protein which allows the coronavirus into the human cells and hence, the possibility of getting infected is lower,” said Dr Pugazhendi.

“The opening of classes 9 to 12 is based on market demand. If the government is seriously interested in spreading education, it should have provided mid-day meals to children living in the vicinity of the particular government school. However, the government has not done that. It is possible that to allay the fears of parents of children in primary classes, the government must have thought of reopening schools for higher classes first,” said Prince Gajendra Babu.

Check children on a weekly basis

At a time when the fast-spreading Delta variant of COVID is causing uncertainty, the question remains that how children can be kept safe in a classroom, said Ramanan Laxminarayan, founder-director of Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy. “The Delta variant has been present in India for quite some time, but unfortunately we missed the opportunity to carefully study its impact on various age groups,” he added.

“Evidence from the west suggests that children are being affected in large numbers but the profile of children there is different from those in India.  For now, it is important to reopen schools but with two provisions.  First, ensure that all school teachers and staff are fully vaccinated. Second, test children on a weekly basis. This is a tough ask but without these two actions, there is a high risk of COVID outbreak fueled by schools,” he said.

There is ample evidence to prove that children are mostly asymptomatic and rates of mortality among them are far lower when compared with adults, added Laxminarayan.

On the question of vaccinating children, Laxminarayan said the mRNA vaccines are already being tested for use in children but this is of little use to children in India. “At a time when barely 13% of the adult population has been fully vaccinated, does it make sense to divert vaccines to children? I would focus on getting high coverage on the population above 65 first,” he said.

(With inputs from Venkataraghavan Srinivasan)

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