Ravindra Kumar Mishra
(The writer is former Chief Consultant, MHRD, GOI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
With the advent of the un-lockdown, reopening of schools does not seem far behind. The Central government announced reopening of schools sometimes in July 2020 to streamline the disrupted education sector. The outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic necessitated lockdown measures. This resulted in closure of schools to prevent the spread of the virus. The unprecedented closure meant to avoid the risk to students' protection and well-being.
It is time to plan for school re-openings and prepare for this critical transition taking cognizance of health, safety and overall well-being of students and the entire education community that should include the timing, conditions and procedures for school reopening.
Timing should be determined based on the status and evolution of the pandemic, informed by advice from health authorities. The absolute priority should be safeguard the life and well-being of students, teachers and the community at large. This brings challenges for a new education world for students learning and education system development.
According to UNESCO, a handful of countries like Denmark, Mexico, Norway, Japan, Germany and China have started reopening of schools.
Denmark became the first European country to reopen schools in April but did nothing until health authorities said it was safe to go ahead. Denmark was in a unique situation because the spread of the virus was running a less violent course. They started with the gradual reopening of daycare and primary schools, and held extensive consultations with all relevant stakeholders. The Ministry published guidelines with well-defined criteria regarding hygiene and social distancing, opened up a hotline and dedicated website with questions and answers updated daily. It was considered important for the well-being of young children as it is harder at this age for distance learning.
Mexico planned school reopening in two phases. During the first phase, only school in risk-free municipalities would open in a gradual manner, while the rest of the schools will reopen in the second phase. The school year would be extended for two weeks. Upon the return of students to schools, emphasis would be placed first on socio-emotional support before moving to academic content, based on relevant assessments and always prioritizing the health of the students.
Norway began reopening its kindergartens on April 20, followed by primary schools for children in grades I-IV on April 27.
Japan's schools reopened in early April for the new school year. Health Ministry of Japan released guidelines for school reopening which include opening windows to ventilate classrooms, maintaining physical distance, checking temperatures daily, and wearing face masks. Considering the circumstances of each area, the actual ground situation has been accounted for instead of a nationwide policy measure. Approximately 40% of schools have reopened, according to the UNESCO.
Germany reopened high schools on April 20 for high school seniors. As part of Germany's plan to gradually lift its lockdown, schools begin the process of reopening on May 4, giving priority to graduating students.
China gradually started reopening schools in mainland provinces, for graduating students, most schools remain closed in larger regions says UNESCO. China's Ministry of Education is requiring that students have their temperatures checked at school entrances and that they display a green code of health through smartphone health code programme.
Taiwan did not ever officially closed schools. They extended winter break by ten days in February. The break was utilized in disinfecting education facilities, distribution of medical supplies and for implementation of procedure for schools with confirmed coronavirus cases. Schools now conduct temperature checks. Some schools have employed plastic table top desk partitions as an added security measure.
According to a report published in The Washington Post, South Korea closed hundreds of schools that had reopened and postponed the many others in the wake a new cluster of novel coronavirus cases were discovered.
When education system is scrambling due to the unprecedented time, it is difficult to speculate on what missing months of school may mean to student achievement. Before India goes back to school sometimes in July, it should brainstorm to compensate the learning loss, divulge safe school guidelines of WHO to stakeholders, modify seating arrangements by putting plastic barriers for students and teachers, disinfecting schools, safe drinking water, hand washing, use of mask and other preventive measures. Close coordination among Apex Academic Authorities, Education, Health, Women and Child Development, Drinking Water, Public Health and Panchayati Raj departments etc. is the need of the hour.