"Schools must also put in place measures to enable contact tracing if a child or staff member tests positive for COVID-19."
“We will not physically open up the school until and unless we are more than a 100 per cent sure that it is safe for our students, teachers and support staff,” said the principal of my children’s school on a zoom call and with that, I breathed a collective sigh of relief like the other parents.
When lockdown 1.0 was implemented, we assumed it would be lifted soon enough, but then came lockdown 2.0, and then we stopped keeping a tab. Working from home and online classes have now become the new norm, and we are adjusting to this changed reality. Now that we are in the unlock 1.0 phase, the Education Ministry is mulling over the decision to get students back to school.
Naturally, the parent community is concerned about this decision, which has spawned numerous discussions and has led to the polarisation of opinions amongst parents who are both for and against it. It is now upon the school management and the parents to walk the fine line and find out what works, keeping in mind the safety and health of all stakeholders spread across the age spectrum – children, teachers, staff, some of whom may be nearing retirement age.
To examine the issue from various perspectives and give you the whole picture, The Better India (TBI) spoke with a cross-section of experts, which includes design specialists, doctors, teachers, and parent-group representatives.
Architects Speak: Risk Assessment in Schools Necessary
Architects are responsible for designing a building as per the envisaged use-case. School design needs to have certain design elements that can accommodate large numbers of children who work together in groups of various sizes. They are not particularly designed keeping social distancing in mind. Instead, they are designed to promote social interactions and collaborations. To implement social distancing in schools, some fundamental changes are required.
Meena Murthy Kakkar, Design head and partner at Envisage Projects & Associate Professor at The School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, believes that looking into the design and protocols of the educational institutions will help tackle the COVID-19 situation better.
“I would urge all educational institutions to get a building health audit conducted to help understand what needs to be changed or fixed.” She adds that it would involve getting a risk assessment done and ensuring that spaces meet strict occupational safety and health criteria.
What changes are we talking about?
1. Meena urges all educational institutions to get the Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) tested for the indoor air quality before physically opening up the school infrastructure.
2. It should be imperative to check the finishes of various surfaces for their hygiene and cleanliness etc.
2. Considering that WHO prescribes physical distancing of at least 1 meter between students in school, the replacement of twin benches by single ones or crossing out every alternate one in the classrooms would be necessary.
3. The new classroom design should allow for increased circulation of fresh air indoors, and classes can be held outdoors as and when possible to help students be in a natural and non-contaminated environment.
4. Sanitation stations should be installed in every classroom, and vinyl floor markings can be used to ensure unidirectional movement in all passages and corridors.
5. Essentially, the class strength needs to be halved in the physical space by either increasing the number of rooms or by going in for a combination of real-time classes and online classes.
Necessity for Mandatory Guidelines: Educators speak
Angela Ghosh, the Principal of The Scottish Church Collegiate School in Kolkata, has almost four decades of teaching experience to her credit. She has been in various discussions to try and understand the best way forward with regards to online classes for her students, especially in light of the fact that many parents do not have smartphones.
“You must understand that for a majority of our parents, sending their children to school is important so that they can step out for their work. We need to consider that too,” she says.
When asked when it would be likely to have the students return to school, she says, “If it were up to me, not before August, and even then only if the situation is 100 per cent under control. We cannot afford to risk anyone’s life.” She further says that the problem worsens as something new gets discovered every day about the virus. “The virus impacts the respiratory tract. Given how hot and humid it is in Kolkata now, we need to be extra cautious before we welcome our children back.”
Miles away, Rumana Parvez, Head of English Department and Academic Coordinator of Sheerwood College, Jhansi, UP, tells TBI, “Without disputing the fact that schools cannot completely eliminate the risk of the infection spreading among children, there are certain guidelines which can be made mandatory to bring down the possibility of a potential spread. For example, 50 percent attendance (only for classes 6-12), only allowing personal conveyance, reduced school timings, making masks, sanitisers and temperature checks compulsory. We are ready to accommodate suggestions from parents as long as it increases our efficiency in keeping our children safe.”
Tripartite Talks Between School, Parents & the Government: Parents Speak
Anupama Jain, the founder of Senior School Moms, a robust online community of parents primarily based in Delhi/NCR, says, “We seem to have a very myopic view of this – while we are discussing the opening up of schools on social media platforms, we are alienating the school in the interiors – what happens there? With almost no access to virtual classrooms, they are completely cut off from this new form of learning.”
What is needed at this point is a tripartite functioning, between the parents, school management, and the government – with the sole interest of the child’s wellbeing being in the center, she says. She adds that as a parent community, we have many things to discuss before schools physically start functioning.
Points to Consider:
1. Staggered opening up schools
“Maybe schools could consider getting in different sections of classes on different days. That way, there will be no overcrowding, and some semblance of social distancing might also be possible,” says Jain.
2. Have only two or three working days
Having adequate off days in between will help get the school premises sanitised and ready for the kids again, feels Jain. This might also help in building the herd immunity (refers to a buildup of immunity in a population due to natural immunity or the administration of vaccines) that the medical fraternity is now speaking about, she says. Avoid physical opening up of schools atleast until the end of July.
3. Classes for older students
The need to make older children mindful of maintaining social distancing and taking all precautions necessary. “Can we expect the same of younger children?” asks Jain. The onus will lie on the child as well as the school to follow all norms being laid down, and therefore it would be prudent to only have the older children come back to school.
4. Cut down on school hours
As children usually spend about eight hours in school, the timings need to be re-considered. Shorter hours with minimum exposure to each other would be the only solution to make this viable, says Jain. The schools must also constantly keep reiterating the importance of following all administrative norms.
5. Enable contact tracing
“Schools must also put in place measures to enable contact tracing if a child or staff member tests positive for COVID-19,” says Jain. While shutting the entire school might not be feasible, that section or floor needs to be sanitised, and kids and teaching staff associated with that class must be asked to stay home for atleast 14 days.
6. Initiate random testing
“If everyone, which includes the teachers, parents, school administration agrees, then random testing could be conducted in schools to ensure the maintenance of a COVID-19 free environment,” says Jain. This, however, will require clearance from government and medical bodies as well, and could well be looked at as a draconian move.
Transmission is Higher in Closed Places: Doctors Speak
Dr Praveen Gupta, Director & Head, Neurology, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram, who is also being asked this question by parents and educators, says, “There is a huge debate around what is the right time for schools to reopen because most of the places in our country have already opened. The Center of Disease Control in America has stated that when compared with the indoor and outdoor activities, the risk of COVID -19 transmission is higher in closed places even with social distancing.”
“We have seen that adults, despite all the information given, are not able to follow the precautions well or completely, which has led to the community spread. Therefore, it is not right to expect children to follow the laid out precautions that we expect adults to follow. That is why schools should not reopen till all the cases of COVID-19 have been cleared for more than two weeks, or a vaccine has shown successful results in the prevention of COVID-19 virus,” he adds.
In a document titled ‘Key Messages and Actions for COVID-19 Prevention and Control in Schools’ released in March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) lays down detailed guidelines on what schools, parents, and educators ought to be doing once physical schools reopen.
1. Promote and demonstrate regular hand washing and positive hygiene behaviors and monitor their uptake.
• Ensure adequate, clean, and separate toilets for girls and boys.
• Ensure availability of soap and safe water at age-appropriate handwashing stations.
• Encourage frequent and thorough washing of hands (at least 20 seconds)
• Place hand sanitisers in toilets, classrooms, halls, and near exits where possible.
2. Clean and disinfect school buildings, classrooms, especially water and sanitation facilities at least once a day particularly surfaces that are touched by many people (railings, lunch tables, sports equipment, door and window handles, toys, teaching, and learning aids.)
• Use sodium hypochlorite at 0.5 per cent (equivalent 5000ppm) for disinfecting surfaces and 70 per cent ethyl alcohol for disinfection of small items, and ensure appropriate equipment for cleaning staff
3. Increase air-flow and ventilation where the climate allows (open windows, use air conditioning where available, etc.)
4. Post signs encouraging good hand and respiratory hygiene practices
5. Ensure removal and safe disposal of trash daily
You can access the entire document here.
What are other countries doing?
With no precedence on what is right or wrong, countries are looking at each other and picking the best practices. In Australia, for example, schools in New South Wales have physically reopened, allowing students to attend one day a week of school in a staggered manner, while students in Victoria began face-to-face classes from 27 May.
In Shanghai, students and staff alike were required to enter the school building through a thermal scanner when school reopened after three months of lockdown. The walls are papered with posters on measures to tackle the coronavirus, and in the spotlessly clean school canteen, glass walls divide the tables, so only two students can eat together.
For students in Denmark, it has been a little over two months since they returned to school. One of the first few European countries to reopen its schools, Denmark has managed to inculcate the habit of washing hands and staying away from each other consciously. From making small changes to how the classrooms are designed and kids sit with each other, to the breakout playgroups – many things have been tweaked to welcome the children back safely.
Are we ready to embrace these changes in India? It is a question that can only be answered if all the stakeholders involved are on the same page. After all, our children’s safety is paramount.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)