How Andhra schools are tackling COVID-19 cases as attendance inches back to normalcy

Since schools reopened on August 16 in Andhra Pradesh, attendance went up from 73% to 91%, even as sporadic COVID-19 cases were detected among students.
Students walking towards a school building
Students walking towards a school building
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It has been two months since schools reopened for students of classes 1 to 10 in Andhra Pradesh, which has been one of the first states to take the step after the first and second waves of COVID-19. Education Department officials recently revealed that the attendance in schools has gone up from 73% in August to 82% in September and 85% in October. The latest attendance figures at government schools stand at around 91%, officials informed Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy on Monday, October 11. Officials told CM Jagan that “there is no significant impact of the virus in schools,” owing to preventive measures and vaccination of teachers.

Like many other states, Andhra Pradesh had announced measures to strengthen paediatric healthcare ahead of a possible third wave of infections, as children remain unvaccinated. Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin has now inched closer to approval for use in children aged 2 to 18 years, with the final authorisation from the Drugs Controller General of India (DGCI) awaited. While school authorities and officials in Andhra have said that the impact of COVID-19 in schools is minimal, encouraging more parents to send children to school, boosting attendance, a few sporadic instances of COVID-19 cases continued to be reported. In the first week of September alone, 293 students and 143 teachers had reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus, even as the state government claimed that over 97% of teachers had been vaccinated by then.

More recently, considerable outbreaks have been seen in a few residential schools. On September 22, 19 students of classes 8 to 10 in a boys’ residential school in Visakhapatnam reportedly tested positive. In East Godavari, a district that has continued to grapple with a higher test positivity rate (TPR) compared to the rest of the state, 59 students and 4 teachers at a Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya residential school tested positive last week.

The situation in non-residential schools is not as concerning, said East Godavari District Education Officer (DEO) S Abraham. “In residential schools, common areas are likely to have caused wider spread. But in regular schools, random tests are being conducted on a weekly basis at local PHCs (Primary Health Centres). There are very few cases coming up, perhaps one or two each day,” he said.

In the case of the Peddapuram Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya, a central school, students who had tested positive and negative were isolated separately on the school premises, waiting for the affected students to recover. In the state schools, decisions on school closure are being taken on a case-by-case basis, according to Education officials. As per the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) that schools have been asked to follow, schools are required to monitor students for temperature and other symptoms. Symptomatic students are sent to the local PHC for testing.

“When a student tests positive, the school is closed down for sanitisation and random tests are conducted, mainly for other students in the same section, as well as students from other sections. Once test results are back, depending on the number of cases and severity, and based on advice from Health Department officials, a call is taken on school closure. Students who test positive are required to isolate at home until they test negative,” said Krishna DEO Tahera Sultana.

If the number of cases detected is small, the sections to which the COVID-19 affected students belong are given holidays for three to four days, the East Godavari DEO said, adding that a call is taken on a case-by-case basis. For instance, back in August, when four students at a Zilla Parishad school in Mudinepalli mandal of Krishna district tested positive for the coronavirus during random testing, the school was closed for three days and all students were placed under home isolation for that period. Meanwhile, contacts of affected students were traced and tested.

Apart from the SMS (Sanitisation, Mask, Social Distancing) protocol, Andhra Pradesh’s COVID-19 guidelines for schools also mandate that there are only 20 students in a classroom. In schools where this is not possible, classes are being conducted for different sections on alternate days, officials said.

While Education officers said that the same protocol is required to be followed by private schools, President of the AP Private Unaided Schools Managements’ Association (APPUSMA) MV Ramachandra Reddy said that there has been no random testing in private schools. Instead, students showing symptoms are being advised against attending classes, he said. Private schools too have seen an uptick in attendance, Reddy said.

The official daily COVID-19 cases in the state have steadily declined over the past few weeks, with 503 new cases being reported in the 24-hour period ending at 9 am on October 12 (out of 32,846 samples tested, indicating a TPR of 1.5%).

“Since COVID-19 cases have gone down and there hasn’t been much impact on children as previously feared, more parents are now willing to send their kids to school. Attendance is around 80% to 85% in higher grades. Up to class 5, it’s still around 70%, but increasing a little day by day,” he said. Along with government schools, many private schools have also switched to offline classes, with online learning completely stopped, he said.

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