Schools in Kerala are set to reopen on November 1, a year and seven months after they were shut following the COVID-19 pandemic. The state government has said there is no need to worry, and has remained firm on its stand to reopen schools. On Friday, September 24, General Education Minister V Sivankutty spoke to the media, announcing general guidelines that will be followed in order to provide a secure environment for the students while the schools reopen.
This includes daily sanitation of classrooms, limiting the number of students per trip in transit vehicles, replacing mid-day meals with financial allowance, parallel digital classes among others. Further, state government officials, including Health Minister Veena George, have said that precise guidelines on school reopening management will be published in a few days. However, a large section of parents are apprehensive about sending students, especially primary school students and students with health issues, to school.
For Serah Susan, a Class 2 student from Kadapara in Pathanamthitta district, the news that schools will reopen for students from class 1 to 7, and classes 10 and 12, has brought joy. She is excited to go to a new school and finally meet her friends and teachers. However, her parents have decided not to send her to attend physical classes. "It is good that schools are gradually being opened and it will benefit students more. However, we have decided not to send our daughter to school immediately. Even under normal circumstances, she easily gets sick when any student in the class falls sick. She has some breathing difficulties too. So we don't want to take any chances," says Princy Varghese, Serahâ€™s mother. She adds that she might reconsider her decision later. "If things are going smoothly as the government assures, maybe then we can send her."
Haseena Naji from Kannur, mother of another class two student, has also decided that she won't be sending her son to school this academic year. "Over the past one year, we have been so careful. Due to the pandemic, we haven't let our children outside. We are also sad that they have been forced to remain indoors. But we are being so cautious, especially since there are still over one lakh active COVID-19 cases in the state. It is not possible all of a sudden to just start sending children to school," Haseena says. She also points out the practical difficulty in having to deal with small children in schools during the pandemic.
"We cannot expect students â€” up to at least class four â€” to sit throughout the school session wearing a mask. Even if they say only two students will be allowed to sit on a bench, it cannot be practical, especially in the case of small children. So we have decided not to send our child to school this academic year," Haseena says.
The anxiety of parents whose children are living with serious health conditions is far more pressing. Thiruvananthapuramâ€™s Shihabudheen is the father of a Class 1 student who is suffering from Type 1 diabetes (juvenile diabetes). Speaking to TNM, he expressed concerns about the future of, and education of children more prone to serious COVID-19 infection. "We are very much concerned. Initially, health experts had been claiming that the third phase of the pandemic will affect children more. Now, many health experts have sided with the government and are saying that there may not be much of an effect. What should we believe, especially for children with diseases like Type 1 diabete? COVID-19 can be very much life threatening," says Shihabudheen.
The state government had advised caution and said that students with compromised immunity or other diseases need not attend schools physically. Shihabudheen believes, however, that the government and schools ought to have waited longer, and reopen when the vaccine for children rolls out. "Or at least, the government should have reopened schools with high school students alone," adds Shihab.
What the govt has said
General Education Minister V Sivankutty said a detailed guideline on school reopening will be published by the 29th of September. Highlighting some significant measures, the minister said that physical classes will be held during the first half of the day and during the second half, teachers will hold digital classes of the same lessons, enabling students who do not come to schools to make use of the digital classes.
He also said, "Mid-day meals will be cancelled, and instead will be replaced by mid-day allowance. Measures will be taken to not allow eateries near schools to sell food items to students. School buses and auto rickshaws transporting students will be instructed to carry limited persons per trip." According to the minister, only two students will be allowed to travel in an auto rickshaw. However, issues regarding transportation of a large number of students who depend on public and private buses, are yet to be addressed.
Concerns of teachers
Meanwhile teachers are worried. They point to the government announcement saying there will be both physical classes and parallel digital classes and said this will mean increased workload for them.
"Yes, it is not good to have schools closed forever, that is not acceptable. But all concerns need to be addressed while reopening. The government has to think about teachers too while preparing guidelines. After taking classes for students who come to school, teachers will also have to take online classes for other students. It will be double work for us, we are also humans," says Dareena, a teacher from Pathanamthitta district.
Health experts have also expressed apprehension about opening schools for all classes at the same time. "The government should take a calculated decision. Preferably, a few higher classes can be opened initially to see how it goes, followed by other lower classes. Primary classes should be reopened at last," says Dr Padmanabha Shenoy, an immunologist based in Kochi. He stressed that children who have various diseases like kidney ailments, Type 1 diabetes etc need to be given special care when classes reopen.
"There will be at least one percent, about 50,000 students with various ailments. Such students require special attention and care when schools reopen," he adds.