Are schools ready for opening to students?

Nilratan Halder | Thursday, 9 September 2021

The decision taken in favour of opening schools and colleges have pleased most people, only more so the learners ---the number one stake-holders. No wonder, the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), which has been pleading with the governments the world over to open schools, has heartily welcomed the decision. But has the ground work been done before opening such educational institutions? That the decision has been taken post-haste is clear from the fact that the education ministry earlier asserted it would open universities first. To make it happen, university students were given the priority for vaccination.

Then it was made clear that schools would be opened only after bringing teachers and students under total vaccination coverage. Another statement made the round that for the schools to open the rate of daily Covid-19 infection has to drop below 5.0 per cent. No such criterion has been fulfilled. In fact inoculation of about 30 million students at this level is a daunting task and more importantly those involving between age 12 and 18 is a tricky issue. Even the World Health Organization is yet to give a nod to vaccination of children aged 12-15. The rate of infection has come down to a single digit for more than a week but it is still close to the double digit.

The education ministry has to make quite a few concessions but it is unlikely to be blamed for not sticking to its earlier stand on opening educational institutions. However, the way it is executing its order smacks of lack of proper consideration to the reality facing the majority of schools, particularly those in rural areas as also the ones in flood and river erosion-affected areas.

Village schools have poor infrastructure and when they are left under lock and key ---if of course they had doors and windows in good condition ---for one and a half years, bringing the classrooms up to the challenging condition on account of the pandemic for holding classes is no mean task. There is no provision for running water and decent toilets on school campuses in villages. Tube-wells are mostly the sources of water and it is not easy to wash hands with water from those unless there is someone to pump. If a tube-well goes out of order, the situation may get out of control.

That the decision on opening schools and colleges has been taken without taking into consideration the ground reality is clear from the fact that the National Technical Advisory Committee on Covid-19 came up with eight recommendations as late as Tuesday, September 7 last. Before opening educational institutions at the grass-roots level, there remain only four days. One of the recommendations concerns wearing of masks of proper sizes. Surely, lower class students will need masks of smaller size than those fit their elders. Is there enough time for distribution or procurement of right sizes before opening schools? Then who will supply or procure such masks for students there?

Village schools, moreover, have fund constraint to spend on daily sanitation, soap, liquid hand-wash, sanitizer and disinfectant. They urgently needed cash allocation for this purpose. Whether all these issues have been taken care of beforehand is in doubt. In flood and river erosion-affected areas, the situation is even graver. In Kurigram, seven primary schools have been devoured by rivers and another 20 are threatened by river erosion. In Rajbari 21 primary schools have been submerged by floodwaters and rendered unfit for holding classes. Thus thousands of students will find no place to attend in-person classes. All schools in flood-hit areas will face similar predicament.

Another preposterous decision is to arrange the primary school-ending examination (PSE). This is the first public examination students face in their life and which educationists have all through derided for its futility. In such a critical time, the insistence of holding this exam defies rationality. If SSC and HSC candidates have daily classes except holidays, the class V examinees, by the same logic, should have similar classes. Is that feasible?

However, there are even more subtle and sensitive academic issues beyond the physical facilities at educational institutions. Students from underprivileged families have suffered the worst on account of the pandemic. There are students who have lost their bread earners or someone close to them in the family to get traumatised. Without financial aid and psychological counselling they cannot attend classes. Or, even if they do, they should be given extra care.

Have the teachers been imparted training under a crash programme on remediation or recovery of learning losses let alone on the mental crisis students suffer from? The conventional teaching method followed under the country's education system has long proved outdated. Commercial coaching and home tutoring thus proliferated. At this critical juncture arising out of prolonged closure of educational institutions, class teaching has to be innovative, stimulating and caring. The emphasis has to be given on overcoming foundational regression the underprivileged students have suffered during the long closure. Unless teachers are particularly oriented to this special need, they may do injustice to students. In a country where teachers are yet to abhor corporal punishment, it would not be easy for them to convert to a highly demanding teaching method. Several teams of child psychologists should be appointed to hold sessions with teachers and parents and if necessary members of such teams will intervene when students are found to lag behind or start behaving abnormally.     


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