Monday, Jul 04, 2022

How Safe Is It To Send Children To School Amid Omicron Scare?

While most parents and kids are happy with the schools reopening after a long break since March 2020, few parents are still highly apprehensive in sending their kids to school amid the surging Omicron scare in India.

Representational Image PTI

 Scene from the past: The school bell rings for lunch; Rohan Roy rushes out to the playground and sits with his group of friends and happily chats and shares his lunch with his friends. After finishing his lunch, Roy yells, “We still have fifteen minutes left, let’s play hide and seek for some time.”

Future Scene when the school re-opens: The school bell rings; Rohan Roy continues to sit in his near to empty class. The class teacher continues to sit in his/her class to ensure that each child is still sitting on a separate bench. Roy takes out his mask, he washes his hands then uses a sanitizer. He takes out his lunch box, takes out his mask and quickly finishes his lunch. The smile has vanished from his face and the eyes have a faraway look. He says to himself, “Those were the days of happiness. Fifteen minutes lunch break and no group sports...what kind of school life is this?” questions Rohan. He says, “First, I was stuck at home and now many of my friends are not coming to school. But still I would say it is slightly better than sitting in my room glued to the screen for classes. At least here I have some friends and we try to catch up in between classes and I get a chance to clear my doubts and have a conversation with my teachers. This connection was completely missing in online classes.”

Human beings are social animals and kids love to socialise, but things will not remain the same even with schools reopening. All over the world schools have shut down since March 2020. But as schools reopened, the scene is not the same as it used to be. Many parents are still skeptical of sending their children to school.

For Nitin Sharma from Noida, he and his wife were left with no choice other than wearing the hats of teachers and their home eventually became a school, office and playground as Covid shut down the schools and turned the bed rooms to class rooms.

Sharma says, “The routine has gone haywire. My daughters, 10 years old and 6 years old, have zero outdoor playtime, With no hobby classes and school, it’s a crisis for all of us. We need to be constantly engaged with them for their studies along with office work and household work in absence of a support system which has technically turned everything off routine. This is  havoc as we have no control over structured learning, the peer learning is zero, the online classes are just a courtesy.”

Yet with schools reopening, Sharma adds that teachers have sent the consent form few months back so that they can start the classes for 6th grade onwards but there is no school transport provided. “We being working professionals are not able to drop and pick up the kids due to our working schedule. Moreover, we felt that it’s not yet safe to send the kids to school due to the omicron virus. So, we haven’t signed the consent form and still there are online classes going on for kids. Kids are restricted to only home and I think this has psychologically impacted them a lot in the last nearly two years. They are more attracted towards social media as there is very less physical interaction with their friends.”

Parents of school students strongly believe that traditional methods of learning like in-person interactions, writing and learning, practical learning, etc. are best suited for their children with an overwhelming number of parents saying that they are worried about the physical and mental well-being of their kids.

Padma Rewari, Psychotherapist from Mumbai and a mother of a sixteen-year-old girl, says, “Nearly two years has gone by with kids being confined in their houses and to add to that the virtual learning was not children’s best. This was observed by most parents who were helpless.

When the schools finally re-opened the parents were again worried due to the pandemic and new variants in the air. However, many parents took it positively and started sending their children to school. As a mother too, I was happy that my daughter started offline school as she had started enjoying isolation, had developed social anxiety and was losing the confidence and spark. She was reluctant to go initially but once she physically met her friends, attended the offline classes, she came back much happier and looked forward to the same.”

 Rewari mentions that she has parents approaching her for advice with ambivalent thoughts of sending kids to school. She explains, “I always ask them to see the bigger picture and the impact of kids learning on virtual platforms and how their daily schedules have gone for a toss. The pattern of the pandemic will keep changing but we have to allow ways for kids to fight this situation and live a normal life.”

Experts feel that children need to be encouraged to come to school with full Covid precautions. Students are also eager to return to school, and that is the need of the hour now. It is difficult for the teachers to pay attention to every student and address their queries via e-schooling. Many students bunk online classes and there is a communication gap between the teachers and the students. Hence, reopening the schools is the best way to help children learn without any disturbance. “Considering the future of the students, this seems the right decision. It will also be right from the child’s point of view. They may also be missing the school, teacher and their friends. It is time to get back to school and sharpen each and every skill with the help of teachers.”

Lalita Arya works as a domestic help in Delhi and has three children. Her eldest daughter is in 11th standard, the middle one is in 9th standard and the youngest one is in second standard. “We have just two mobile phones at home. My husband carries one of them at work and my elder one uses the other one. We don’t have a computer. My other two kids have missed out on a lot of classes. Though I am not sending my youngest kid to school yet because I am scared of the Omicron infection. But I am happy that schools have opened, otherwise I would have been pressured to buy another smartphone.”

According to the World Health Organization, children and adolescents tend to have milder disease compared to adults. Therefore, except for those children who are at higher risk for severe SARS-CoV-2, they do not form a priority group for vaccination. The risk of death among children due to SARS-CoV-2 is less than the risk of infections like Dengue. Moreover, the latest national serosurvey indicates that almost three-fifths of Indian children already had natural infection.

 There is a huge digital divide and having online exams is a huge challenge. Arya adds, “Reopening schools gives a chance to students to directly interact with the teachers, clear their doubts, and ensure free-flow of communication.”

Dr. Jagdish Kathwate, Consultant Neonatologist and Paediatrician, Motherhood Hospital, Pune says, “When at school, children tend to develop a strong bond with others, make friends, and are socially engaged. But, online schooling leads to social isolation. The children are glued to mobiles or laptops, avoiding interaction with other classmates. Furthermore, social isolation can lead to anxiety, depression, stress, frustration, irritability, and loneliness. Thus, there will be negative thoughts in the minds of children. There will be a lack of motivation to attend online classes, and no discipline. Too much sitting is involved in e-learning which can lead to obesity in children. To overcome all these problems, it will be a good idea to reopen schools, and welcome children by of course adhering to the Covid protocol.”

Now, since slowly we are getting back on track, offices are opening too. So, it is the time we need to think about the children too. It is time that kids get back to school and restart the process of learning and self-development.