When other sectors were allowed to resume their normal activities post the corona surges, schools should have been asked to come back to their normal routine also, writes V.S.Pandey
We will soon be entering the third year of the covid 19 pandemic. Currently, India is in the midst of the third wave of the covid pandemic with infection numbers above two and a half lakhs mark for the past several days. Some experts have predicted the case numbers to be much higher than the current level and to peak in a few weeks. In this scenario, the first casualty has been again the education sector. As soon as the corona infection cases began to rise, all the state governments ordered the closure of schools- as if they are the super spreaders.
Learning a lesson from the ill consequences of the first lockdown imposed on our country in the last week of March 2020, dubbed the harshest and ill-conceived by many , the central and state governments did not dare close down markets , factories, businesses and travel etc . Mercifully, the economy also is limping back on track from the slump it suffered as a consequence of the nation wide lockdown, but the grave damage caused to our education sector and to the millions of students is irreparable. It seems none in our governance structure is concerned about it and is even not bothered about the collapse of the education system across the country during these past two years. The simple question that needs to be asked is why we have not learned from other countries, who despite more severe covid infection rates and an overwhelmed health care sector, have ensured that schools remained open and that the student community didn’t suffer from the ill consequences of the pandemic.
It is no rocket science to understand that as other important sectors were allowed to resume their normal activities post the corona surges, schools should have been asked to come back to their normal routine immediately after the opening of other sectors. Recently the World Bank’s Global Education Director opined that there is no justification now for keeping schools closed in view of the pandemic and even if there are new waves, closing schools should be the last resort. He asserted that there is no evidence that reopening schools had caused a surge in coronavirus cases and that schools are not a “safe place”. He also stated that it does not make sense from a public-policy perspective to wait till children are vaccinated as there is “no science” behind it.
He also said that based on serious studies regarding the impact of corona on schools and the education sector it can be safely inferred that there is no relation between opening schools and the spread of the coronavirus. There is no evidence linking the two and there is no justification now to keep the schools closed. Even if there are new waves of COVID-19, closing schools should be the last resort.
Clearly what the senior world bank functionary said seems very logical as it does not make sense to keep markets, factories, restaurants, bars and shopping malls open and keep schools closed. According to various simulations by the World Bank, health risks for children if schools are opened are low and the cost of the closure is extremely high.
When the pandemic began to spread across nations , no body knew any thing about the corona virus so different countries adopted different strategies to keep their population safe , save lives , expanded health care infrastructure and tried various therapies. Clearly the whole world was navigating in a sea of ignorance. Nobody then knew what was the best way of combating the pandemic and the immediate reaction of most countries in the world was to close schools. Now after nearly two years of experience in handling this virus , we have had several waves . Various countries learning from their own and others experiences started opening schools with a set of protocols in place. In Europe and elsewhere, schools are running with full strength even when the omicron variant is infecting thousands every day. Some studies have clearly pointed out that if the opening of schools had had an impact in the transmission of virus then why countries also have waves when schools were closed -so obviously there has been no role of schools in some of the spikes.
The other important fact which has got lost in the discourse is that even if the kids get infected, as is happening with Omicron, the data emerging across the globe suggests that fatalities and serious illness among children is extremely rare, so risks for children are low but cost due to loss of education to children is , undoubtedly, extremely high. Another critical fact is that there is no country which has put the condition of reopening schools only after children are vaccinated because there is no science behind it and it does not make sense from public policy perspective.
A 2020 report by the World Bank Education, titled “Beaten or Broken? Informality and COVID-19 in South Asia”, had predicted that the prolonged closure of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic in India may cause a loss of over $400 billion in the country’s future earnings. Clearly for India , which has lower level of educational attainments as compared to other countries, impact of covid led school closures will be more severe than in other countries and the learning poverty is likely to increase much more than anticipated. Learning poverty means being unable to read and understand a simple text by the age of 10.
Undoubtedly this loss of learning that our student population is experiencing is devastating. Clearly the potential increase of learning poverty will certainly have a devastating impact on future productivity, earnings, and well-being of this generation of children and youth, their families, and our economy.
The need of the hour is to open all the schools, colleges, universities immediately as other countries have done, adopt the set of protocols that have worked elsewhere, rationalize the curriculum, reorganize the academic calendar, prepare the teachers for the huge task ahead of bringing our education system back on rails . Governments have to immediately wake up from their deep slumber, look around and see that when shops , markets are open , rail metros are running , travel and transport sector is operational , factories , shop floors are abuzz with activities, offices , elections are back in business, then why only schools are being stopped from functioning? Schools , colleges must be opened immediately and allowed to run unhindered.
(Vijay Shankar Pandey is former secretary Government of India)