The Financial Express

How and when to open schools and colleges

How and when to open schools and colleges

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has expressed her eagerness to open schools as early as possible. But she also wants to ensure that students are vaccinated before opening schools and colleges. This has prompted holding of a high-level meeting of government officials scheduled for Sunday next for arriving at a decision on whether a vaccination programme should be started for school students soon or not. Reportedly, teachers of schools and colleges have mostly been brought under the vaccination coverage. University students, eligible for registration for vaccination, are also receiving anti-Covid shots.

Although the Director General of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) claimed on Wednesday that university students have been vaccinated, there are still a large number of them waiting to be inoculated. The public universities are scheduled to open on October 15. University students still remaining to get the jabs will have to be given the priority if the opening schedule has to be maintained.

Then there is another important academic issue of holding the Secondary School Certificate (SSC) and Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) examinations ---the two most important public examinations in the life of students in this country. So far it was given to understand that the two examinations in their brief forms would be completed in October and December. What has not been made clear is if the candidates for the two public examinations will be inoculated before appearing at the examination halls. These examinations deserve top priority and all preparations including the candidates' and invigilators' health safety has to be taken well ahead of the commencement of those examinations.

So far as vaccination of school and college students is concerned, it cannot be done at a time ---if not for anything else at least for the non-availability of the required number of vaccine doses at a time. There are also the problems of different types of vaccines. Since no decision has ever been taken to administer shots of different vaccines to a person, precise account of those have to be maintained in order not to disrupt the schedules of recipients of shots of each type. There has to be a provision for the second jab of the same type for the recipient of the first one. Also, the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine has preservation problem due to extremely low temperature (-70 degree Celsius, according to a latest claim between -25 and -15 C). It is unthinkable to carry those to areas where facilities for preservation at such low temperature are absent.

Evidently, the constraints are many and the challenges overwhelming, only more so, when the target population, as high as 40 million students of schools and colleges, is concerned. The United States of America has approved vaccines for children. Reportedly, Moderna has received the approval. India, on the other hand, has developed Covaxin and Zydus. The first one is in its third phase of trial and looks set to be approved for application from next month. The results are said to be impressive on 12-18 years old children. Now trials will be carried on 02-11 years old children. Zycov-D (Zydus Cadila) is also in the process of starting trial. BioNTech and other foreign vaccines including Sputnik V (requiring one dose) are also under trial for administering on children.

The Indian government is taking all precautions against the predicted third wave of the pandemic ---one that is unlikely to spare children, as Indian experts have warned. Already, Maharashtra, Kerala and some other states in India have witnessed Covid-19 in children. So the race is against time there. Although no such prediction has as yet been made about a third wave with especial concern for children in Bangladesh, the policymakers would do well to be on guard. Already, lax health protocols noticed in public spaces give a cause for serious concern. If India approves Covaxin, a product of Bharat Biotech and Zydus, produced by a company based in Ahmedabad, it will have the advantage of inoculating its child population under the age of 18, no matter if it is as large as 41per cent of the total demographic size.

In the worst case scenario, Bangladesh will have to make preparation for inoculating at least 30 per cent of its young population as 0-14 years olds constitute 26.75 per cent of the total size. Another three to four per cent may come from the rest of the teenagers under the age 18. If, however, the country is spared such a misfortune, it will have to immunize at least its school-going children before they attend classes. Since that number is roughly 40 million, the task will prove particularly daunting.

So, the programme of inoculation, as it stands, is likely to be carried out gradually down the order. Since university students have been preferred first to get vaccine shots, it should focus on SSC and HSC candidates next. Here the order has to be reversed for the simple reason of the examinations of the former taking place almost a month earlier. The current batch of HSC candidates completed its SSC examinations normally but the SSC batch got promotion without going through the required academic tests and examinations. For them a public examination, however brief it may be, is a must.   

The case of students of other classes down the order will be tricky because they could not attend in-person classes. Another academic year is about to pass. If the decline in coronavirus infection continues, the best option would be to extend the academic year and offer extensive in-person classes for at least three months before holding annual examinations. This will require shifting of the academic year but it has to be done in the interest of saving the day for the young learners.   


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