To send or not send: TN parents in dilemma over sending unvaccinated kids to school

Tamil Nadu schools, both private and public, reopened for classes 1-12 from February 1.
Masked girl students sitting next to each other with books open in a school
Masked girl students sitting next to each other with books open in a school

Schools in Tamil Nadu reopened for classes 1-12 on February 1. However, parents are still in a fix over sending their children for in-person classes, considering that COVID-19 cases have not dropped significantly in the state. In particular, many parents of primary school students remain opposed to sending their wards to school, as these children have not yet been vaccinated.

“My child is in class 3 and she now has to go to school every day. Moreover, the management has decided to hold classes with full strength from Monday to Friday. Earlier, we felt it was safer as the classes were in shifts and only 50% of students were present in the classroom at a given time. But now, the risk of infection is way higher. It is impossible to follow through with any SOPs with so many kids in a room,” says Chennai resident Geetha Natarajan, parent to two girls studying in a private school in the city.

Geetha says that the parents of the school where her daughters study requested that classes be shortened for standard 1-5. The management accepted this request and made it a half-day for elementary school.

“When the state is insisting that private offices, cinemas and restaurants operate only at half capacity, why is it allowing schools to operate with full strength? We can’t afford to be callous just because the third wave hit us differently, without too many casualties or hospitalisations,” Geetha explains, adding that classes should be held in shifts in all schools to avoid overcrowding.

Sathyapriya, a Coimbatore-based parent whose son studies in class 10 in a government school in the city, has other concerns. She says that with the Omicron wave, several people who were down with cough, cold and fever chose to stay at home and self-medicate.

“The infection is spreading way faster in this wave. Moreover, this time, many patients chose to do lateral flow (antigen test) instead of an RT-PCR test to check if they have COVID-19. Now, even the government is not insisting on positive persons taking an RT-PCR test to show that they are negative. When the rules are this lax and the infectiousness higher, there are chances that children who are positive or are carriers might attend class. This could expose the entire class,” she says, adding that she was confident about sending her son to school as he has already received one dose of the vaccine, but understands the concerns of parents of primary school students.

“The state could have delayed reopening schools for primary classes, as only two months are left in the current academic year,” she says.

“It is difficult to control young children. They will get excited when they meet others their age. They will sit together, hug each other, share books and food, etc. This is worrying for parents as their children are not vaccinated yet,” she explains.

Schools cautious

Considering the situation of primary school children, several private schools in Chennai have decided to hold regular classes for students from 6-12. The other classes will have a shift system where each section will be split into two groups. The first group will attend the morning session from 8.30 am to 11.50 pm while the second group will attend afternoon classes from 12.30 pm to 3.50 pm.

Other schools, such as GRT Mahalakshmi Vidyalaya Matriculation Higher Secondary School, plan to wait a few more days to see how physical classes pan out for higher classes before starting classes for elementary school students.

“We are thoroughly following the SOPs issued by the state government. The state has allowed classes to be held in full strength. But because our class strength is very high, we are going to conduct in-person sessions in shifts. We have placed sanitisers at accessible points in the building. Our wash areas and restrooms have been stocked up with soap and handwash. Children will be asked to sanitise during breaks and lunch time, and keep their mask on at all other times,” says Geetanjali, principal of Chennai Primary School, Tondiarpet.

In-person classes necessary to bridge learning gap

Tamil Nadu Private Schools Association President R Visalatchi made a case for in-person learning for primary schools while speaking to TNM. “Over the last two years, children have been sitting at home and only attending online classes. This has resulted in a huge learning gap that needs to be bridged. Especially for classes 1-3, it is important to go to school as their learning process is more interactive. This is the time they learn how to write and read the alphabet. In classes 4 and 5, they learn cursive writing. It is very difficult to teach this via online classes,” she explains.

She further adds that children need the social release that they have been deprived of for the last 2 years due to the pandemic.

“They have barely met or interacted with other children their age. Coming to school will help them interact with other kids and build their social skills. Further, medical experts have said that the current variant is milder. The third wave also saw fewer casualties and hospitalisations, even among children. So sending children to school is a risk that parents must take at some point,” she adds.

Tamil Nadu is witnessing a fall in COVID-19 cases. On Monday, the state reported 19,280 cases and discharged 25,056 patients. This has pushed the active COVID-19 cases in the state to 1.98 lakh, from the 2 lakh mark.

COVID mitigation strategies for schools  

In an interview to TNM, Dr Gagandeep Kang, virologist at CMC Vellore said that schools need not be shut down if an individual case is detected. Rather, they should develop strategies to restrict transmission of COVID cases with the classes. “If a school detects a case, I would suggest that the school quickly do a rapid antigen (lateral flow) test of all the students and adults near the infected child or adult. If transmission is detected, then send the whole group (and not just the infected persons) back home, so that ongoing transmission of the virus is curbed. But if just find an isolated case that has not infected anyone else, ask that individual to go back and home and return to school only once he or she tests negative. You need to evolve strategies. Only if you detect clusters do you need to think of more serious measures,” Dr Gagandeep explains.  

She adds that a quick look at risk profiles show that healthy children are best able to handle the virus. “This means that we need to keep children with comorbidities safe from exposure and vaccinate all the adults,” she says. 

Dr Vijayalakshmi Balakrishnan, Senior Consultant, Infectious Diseases at Chennai’s Kauvery hospital says that the disadvantages of keeping children at home far outweigh those of sending them to school. “All the COVID-19 variants we have seen over these two years have had little impact on children. In fact, most countries did not shut down schools except for a few weeks during the peak of a wave and multiple experiments have been done in different countries with regard to keeping schools open. Only in India, the schools have been shut down for nearly two years and it has had a major psychological impact on them,” she explains. 

Adding to this, Dr Vijayalakshmi says that right now, a reasonable number of senior citizens in the state have been vaccinated. “We have to look at who is affected by a transmission. It is the elderly at home. But now, this is taken care of and even if a child is infected, the vaccinations will protect the adults at home. So the risk is much less now,” she says. 

Further, most children recover very quickly even when they do get infected. “We have seen even children with comorbidities recover fast. It is very rare that they fall too sick,” she says.

Explaining why children recover faster, she says that kids lack the ACE2 receptor, a protein present in adults which provides an entry point for coronavirus to hook itself and cause pneumonia or lung damage. “Most of the mortality in COVID-19 is because of pneumonia, but children are safe from this,” she says. Very rarely, children are affected by multi-system inflammation where the virus affects other parts of their body including the brain and heart. “But the odds are so low that across all the three waves we have had this happen only in the hundreds across all the states in India,” she says.

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