Over 50 IITians, doctors, scientists and parents have written a letter to the Chief Ministers of Delhi, Maharashtra and Karnataka and pleaded that they should urgently set up a task force for reopening of educational institutions in their respective states.
These professionals have argued that the cost of schools closure in terms of learning and development losses are mounting, while scientific evidence indicates that reopening with safeguards is possible.
“As this letter is being written, schools are open, either partially or fully, in nearly 170 countries across the world. A few countries, e.g, France and Sweden, didn’t close the school during the pandemic,” the letter said.
It added, “In July 2021, UNICEF and UNESCO stated that schools should be the last to close and the first to open. There is evidence that pre-primary and primary schools are at the lower risk and should be prioritised before schools for older age group.”
After the decline in the daily active cases in the second wave, many states like Bihar and Himachal Pradesh have decided to open their schools in a staggered manner. However, states like Delhi, Maharashtra and Karnataka haven’t taken any decision in this regard yet.
Some of the noted personalities who have signed the letter are Jean Dreze, Honorary Professor, Delhi School of Economics, Professor Bhaskaran Raman from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, IIT Bombay; Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, Physician-Epidemiologist and Public Policy Specialist; Reetika Khera, Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi; Gautam Menon, Professor, Departments of Physics and Biology, Ashoka University among others.
These professionals are worried that if state governments are thinking of opening the schools after vaccinating the majority of the population, it will take several more months because only 13 percent eligible population in Delhi and 7 percent in Maharashtra have been vaccinated so far.
“While vaccines for children are under development in India, countries such as the UK have decided against universal vaccination for young children and nowhere in the world are children under 12 being vaccinated at the moment,” the letter suggested adding, “Given the cost of prolonged school closure in India, vaccination of children cannot be a prerequisite for opening schools.”
“Further, a zero case scenario is unlikely; Covid-19 is here to stay and the approach must now be to address risks with appropriate mitigating measures,” the letter added.
Referring to various recommendations and studies done in the recent past, these professionals have advised the state governments to consider these eight steps as careful pre-planning at all levels with regard to local conditions.
- Set up a task force with relevant experts on an urgent basis to plan for the opening of schools in your state, partially now, and fully in the near future;
- Plan for opening schools in a staggered manner where the positivity rate is low
- Explore opening of pre-primary and primary before secondary schools
- Offer vaccines on priority to school staff and explore the reduction of the gap between doses
- To begin with, small groups of students to attend school once or twice a week;
- Upgrade school infrastructure for the transition from online to hybrid model;
- Issue guidance for compliance with COVID-appropriate behaviour (masking, distancing and hand hygiene); and
- Ensure appropriate ventilation.
Besides the fact that online education is not accessible to all, these professionals say that language and mathematical abilities of primary school children are suffering.
“Apart from learning loss, children are subject to loss of confidence, mental distress, violence and abuse, and reduced development of social skills. The consequences for children will be felt in their academic achievement, societal engagement as well as physical and mental health,” they have viewed in the letter.
They have also dismissed the fear of the third wave which will reportedly impact the kids and quoted various newspaper reports and recent seroprevalence surveys which have confirmed that children have already developed antibodies against the virus.
“Notwithstanding a possible third wave, children themselves are at low risk from Covid-19, and there is strong scientific evidence that schools do not contribute significantly to Covid-19 spread,” they said.