Due to the pandemic, the impact was everywhere, which also resulted in the closure of schools and other educational institutions. As schools reopen in many parts of the country, it’s important that precautions are taken both inside and outside the classrooms to prevent the spread of Covid-19. A key lesson learnt during the pandemic is the important role teachers play in ensuring that learning continues. As schools reopen, a lot will depend on teachers to ensure that children will be able to continue their education in a safe and healthy environment and make up for knowledge and skills that may have been lost due to the pandemic.
The journey and spread of the novel coronavirus, now enhanced by the new variant, Omicron, have led to a variety of “school-like” civil society initiatives as well as efforts by teachers’ networks, volunteers and students, both during lockdown and post-lockdown periods, to somehow keep unbroken the tenuous pedagogic chord between the near-missing children and the missing school. Schools and other educational institutions have opened over the last few months and it is now evident that these institutions are not super-spreader spaces once they have mitigation measures in place.
A report by the Indian Council of Medical Research in June-July 2021 showed that adult and child populations have been almost equally exposed to the virus. Although infection rates are similar, symptomatic disease in children is much less and the incidence of severe disease requiring hospitalisation and possibilities of death are rare. The infected children, therefore, may not show symptoms but could become part of the chain of the spread of the virus in the community. The spread of the Omicron variant has put another spoke in the wheel regarding the return to physical schools and educational institutions. The national genomic surveillance programme is tracking the variant and trying to ascertain if it is emerging as a major epidemiological concern in the Indian context.
India has done a remarkable job in vaccinating those above the age of 18 years. This has dramatically reduced the total number of cases. But, currently children below 18 years of age have not received any vaccination in India. Therefore, all adults in their homes and schools, including teachers and staff members, should receive vaccination on priority, if not already immunised. The aim is to have children in a vaccine-protected adult environment.
In this critical situation, detailed advisories should be available at school and classroom levels as well as for high-risk individuals. Every institution must promote effective measures to regulate the spread of Covid-19. Teachers have a critical role to play in ensuring that students understand the precautions they should take to protect themselves and others from Covid-19 and it is important that they lead by example in the classrooms.
Handwashing is one of the easiest, more cost-efficient and effective ways of combating the spread of germs and keeping students and staff healthy. Students should be encouraged to get into the practice of regularly washing their hands and/or applying hand sanitisers at key moments, such as entering and leaving the classrooms, touching surfaces, learning materials, books, and after using a tissue to blow their nose. Students should always cough and/or sneeze into their elbows. However, if by accident, they do so in/on their hands, they should be instructed to immediately wash their hands or apply hand sanitisers. If students sneeze or cough into a tissue, it should be disposed of immediately and they must wash their hands thereafter. It is extremely important to normalise the idea of frequent and routine handwashing.
When it comes to physical distancing, it is important to establish some ground rules in classrooms, in accordance with the procedures established by the school’s administration, as well as protocols established by the Ministry of Health and/or local health bodies and authorities. It is pertinent to maintain a distance of at least one metre between everyone present at the school. Desk spacing should be increased by at least one metre in classrooms. The mixing of classes for school and after school activities must be limited. For example, students in a class should stay in one classroom throughout the day, while teachers should move between classrooms; or classes could use different entrances, if available, or establish an order for each class to enter and leave the building/classroom.
There is a need to consider increasing the number of teachers, if possible, to allow for fewer students per classroom (if space is available). Students should be advised against crowding during school pick-up and at day care centres. If possible, pick up by older family or community members (i.e. grandparents) should be avoided. The school authorities should arrange school pick-up/drop off times differently (according to age group) to decrease any large gathering of children at a given time.
If wearing fabric masks is recommended in school, then it should be made sure that students are familiar with when they should wear masks and how to dispose of used masks safely in order to avoid the risk of contaminated masks in classrooms and playgrounds. All efforts should be made to ensure that the use of a mask does not interfere with learning. No children should be denied access to education due to mask wearing or the lack of a mask because of low resources or unavailability.
Proper action need to be taken if one of the students appears to be sick. Covid-19 symptoms should be identified. The most common symptoms are fever, cough and tiredness. Other symptoms can include shortness of breath, chest pain or pressure, muscle or body aches, headache, loss of taste or smell, confusion, sore throat, etc.
The school administration should designate a specific area in the school (i.e. near the entrance) as a waiting room where children can wait. Ideally, this room should be well-ventilated. If there are school nurses available, they should be present in the waiting area. If students feel ill and/or exhibit symptoms of Covid-19, they should wait in the designated room to be picked up by their parents/caregiver. Afterwards, the room should be cleaned, disinfected and sanitised.
A procedure must be in place to separate sick students and staff from those who are well—without creating stigma—and there should be a process for informing parents and consulting healthcare providers and health authorities wherever possible. Students and staff may need to be referred directly to a health facility, depending on the situation, or sent home. Students should be encouraged to stay home and self-isolate themselves if they feel ill. Standard Operating Procedures should be installed for temperature screening.
We have to update the framework and think of effective ways to tackle the situation and provide education to every child during the pandemic.
—By Abhilash Singh and India Legal Bureau