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 go-ahead to partially reopen more schools despite apprehension from some parents and signs that infections are spreading again.
Schools and colleges in at least six other states are gradually reopening with health measures in place through September. In New Delhi, all staff must be vaccinated and class sizes will be capped at 50% with staggered seating and disinfected desks.
In the capital, only ninth to twelfth graders will be allowed to attend initially, although it is not compulsory. Some parents say they will hold back their children, including Nalini Chauhan, who lost her husband to coronavirus last year.
“That trauma is there for us and that’s what keeps me from going out. We don’t go to malls. We don’t shop. So why schools now?” she said.
Life is slowly returning to normal in India after the trauma of a fierce coronavirus outbreak earlier this year which brought life to a halt in the country, sickened tens of millions and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. . A number of states last month reverted to in-person learning for certain age groups.
New daily infections have fallen sharply since their peak of more than 400,000 in May. But on Saturday, India recorded 46,000 new cases, the highest in nearly two months.
The rise has raised questions about reopening schools, with some caveats against it. Others say the virus risk for children remains low and schools are urgently needed to open for the poorest students who lack internet access, making online learning nearly impossible.
“The simple answer is that there’s 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 must 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 deepened existing inequalities, separating the rich from the poor, 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 more than a year of education,” she said.
A study published in January by Azim Premji University of more than 16,000 children found staggering levels of learning loss. Researchers found that 92% of children had lost crucial language skills, such as being able to describe a picture or write simple sentences. Similarly, 82% of children surveyed lacked the basic math skills they had learned the previous year.
For Giesem Raman, a teacher in a remote village in northeast Manipur state, the data matches what he has seen in person. The small primary school where he works closed for the second time in April. With no facilities for online classes, classes did not take place in any form.
When his pupils were briefly allowed to return to school earlier this year, he said many had forgotten almost everything they had learned.
“It saddens me to see how the future of these children could be destroyed,” he said.
In Uttar Pradesh state, where school reopens for pupils in grades one to five on Wednesday after older pupils were allowed in last month, six-year-old Kartik Sharma was delighted to wear his new school uniform. His father, Prakash Sharma, said he was “satisfied” with the anti-virus protocols put in place by the school.
“The arrangements made by the school are first class,” he said.
Not everyone is 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 that scenario sending children to school could prove detrimental,” she said.
Associated Press reporters Shonal Ganguly and Chonchui Ngashangva in New Delhi and Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow contributed to this report.