Indian schools cautiously reopen even as COVID warnings mount

NEW DELHI (AP) – More students in India will be able to enter a classroom for the first time in nearly 18 months on Wednesday, as authorities gave the green light to partially reopen more schools despite apprehension of some parents and signs that infections are on the rise again.

Schools and colleges in at least six other states are gradually reopening with health measures in place throughout September. In New Delhi, all staff are to be vaccinated and class sizes will be capped at 50% with staggered seats and sanitized desks.

In the capital, only students in grades 9 to 12 will be allowed to attend initially, although this is not compulsory. Some parents say they will hold their children, including Nalini Chauhan, who lost her husband to coronavirus last year.

“This trauma is there for us and that’s what keeps me from going out. We don’t go to shopping malls. We do not shop. So why the schools now? she said.

Life has slowly returned to normal in India after the trauma of a ferocious wave of coronavirus at the start of the year that left life in the country untouched, sickened tens of millions and left hundreds of thousands dead. A number of states reverted to face-to-face learning for certain age groups last month.

New daily infections have declined sharply from their peak of over 400,000 in May. But on Saturday, India recorded 46,000 new cases, the highest in nearly two months.

The hike has raised questions about reopening schools, with some caveats against this. Others say the risk of the virus for children remains low and there is an urgent need to open schools for the poorest students who do not have internet access, making online learning nearly impossible .

“The simple answer is that there is never a good time to do anything during a pandemic,” said Jacob John, professor of community medicine at Christian Medical College in Vellore. “There is a risk, but life has to go on – and you can’t go on without schools. “

Online education remains a privilege in India, where only one in four children have access to the Internet and digital devices, according to UNICEF. The virtual classroom has compounded existing inequalities, marking the haves of the have-nots, said Shaveta Sharma Kukreja of the Central Square Foundation, an education nonprofit.

“While children with access to smartphones and laptops continued their learning with minimal disruption, the less privileged effectively lost over a year of education,” she said.

A study published in January by Azim Premji University involving more than 16,000 children found staggering levels of learning loss. Researchers found that 92% of children lost crucial language skills, such as being able to describe a picture or write simple sentences. Likewise, 82% of the children surveyed lacked the basic math skills they had learned the previous year.

For Giesem Raman, a teacher in a remote village in northeastern Manipur state, the data matches what he saw in person. The small primary school where he works closed for the second time in April. In the absence of facilities for the online courses, the courses did not take place in any form.

When his students were briefly allowed to return to school earlier this year, he said many forgot almost everything they had learned.

“It saddens me to see how the future of these children has been destroyed,” he said.

In the state of Uttar Pradesh, where the school reopens on Wednesday for students in grades 1 through 5 after older students were allowed last month, 6-year-old Kartik Sharma was delighted to wear his new school uniform. His father, Prakash Sharma, said he was “happy” with the school’s anti-virus protocols.

“The arrangements made by the school are first class,” he said.

Not all are so confident. Toshi Kishore Srivastava said she would wait before sending her son back to first grade.

“Doctors are predicting the third wave, and in this scenario, sending children to school could prove to be detrimental,” she said.


Associated Press reporters Shonal Ganguly and Chonchui Ngashangva in New Delhi and Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow contributed to this report.

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