Covid: 1 in 3 kids in classes 1, 2 has never attended school in person
Representational image Credit: Representational image

Guwahati: The plan by Assam Government to reopen schools on September 1 was received with uncertainty and scepticism by most residents of the state. The news comes as COVID-19 cases in India continue to surge despite efforts by authorities to flatten the curve and prevent further spread of the devastating coronavirus. Measures like the shutdown of schools were one of the earliest actions implemented by the government.

Most institutions around the world are still under lock and key, even in countries where the virus has been moderately contained. Assam, whose doors to classrooms have remained shut since mid-March has recorded more than 48,000 cases so far. It is no wonder the news of a reopening attracted widespread scepticism.

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Defending their decision to reopen schools, Assam Government noted that the process will be cautious and done systematically to protect the lives of students and teachers. State education and health minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma said, “In addition to compulsory testing of teachers and staff from 23rd to 30th of August, pre-scheduled classes would hold in open spaces like playgrounds to maintain social distancing”.

Sarma added that the new routine will see students in classes 5 to 8 study in the playground or open field, those in grades 9 and 11 will use their classrooms for two days weekly, while those in classes 10 and 12 will use the classrooms for four days weekly. Students in grades 4 and below will remain home, according to the statement. He further noted that only 15 students would be allowed in a classroom at a time.

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Despite assurances by the state of safety for students and staff, some residents and teachers we spoke to are not buying it. Pointing out the flaw in the government’s plan, Principal of Nagaon’s Ramanujam Junior College, Dillip Kumar Borah said, “Although the step the government intends to take looks brilliant, it won’t be convenient, especially for schools without open fields. Acquiring one now would be very difficult for many schools.” Borah also pointed out the issue of the unstable weather and how it may disrupt school activities conducted in open fields if they were to reopen.

Reopening schools may expose healthy people to the deadly virus. The government intends to test the teachers and staff to detect and have useful data towards ensuring they are free from the infection. However, no similar measure has been put in place for students also to get tested. Principal Borah put this in perspective when conveyed his disapproval, saying “Provision is only being made for the teachers and staff to get tested, forgetting children can also be carriers of the virus. Who will bear the responsibility for the children?”

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Similarly, Bandana Neog, principal of Maharishi Vidya Mandir, Guwahati, told us that they are happy with the ongoing online classes. “Our online classes are going on well. I can’t let our young students sit under the sun to study. When adults find it so hard to bear the heat and humid, how could the children? Moreover, without any vaccination in place, I don’t think parents would be willing to send their kids to school. Our students are learning well in our online sessions. We have decreased the syllabus by 30 per cent.”

Several parents have also shared their displeasure in putting their children in harm’s way and are worried about how children will learn in such unfavourable conditions. Some did not shy away from expressing this disapproval.

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Tezpur-based Sangeeta Barman, a concerned parent, pointed out that it will be extremely uncomfortable to let her child attend school at this time. “Their health is more important than academics,” she said.

Barman is just one of many other parents who feel this way and believe schools should continue to implement online classes till next year because of the vulnerability of children to diseases.

To help students cope in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Assam Government has also proposed cutting down the syllabus of schools. “The students will be given a smaller syllabus, more realistic for them to finish”, said Sarma. But even this move has its own shortcoming.

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As Principal Borah points out, “For students studying in 11th and 12th standards if they do not understand most concepts now, it could result in a much bigger problem later on in life”.

To further ensure the safety of teachers and students alike, the Government plans to introduce 119 new high schools in the tea estates in the state. This, however, is not cheap and comes at a high price. Sarma claims the Assam Government spends up to 5.8 percent of its GDP on education.

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Nonetheless, there are those who feel reopening schools is a bold step by the Assam Government, and it will yield positive results. The principal of Salt Brooke Academy, Dibrugarh, Ajoy Sahu shares his thoughts; “Opening schools is a step in the right direction for students in classes 9 to 12. Because of their level of maturity and ability to follow strict guidelines, opening those classes is a pretty good idea. While classes five to eight should remain under lockdown, adequately utilising online platforms for learning.”

Assam is only a victim of a virus that has distorted life as we know it. The authorities and all other people concerned are merely caught between keeping students and teachers back home to protect them and ensuring that the wheel of the society moves on. Only time will tell.

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