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Good time to reopen schools or not – an expert view

The decision to reopen schools was made when the COVID-19 positivity rate in Tamil Nadu was under one per cent, said Dr J. Radhakrishnan, principal secretary, Tamil Nadu Health and Family Welfare Department, adding that only 400-odd COVID-19 cases had been reported among students who have been attending schools. He was speaking at a panel discussion titled ‘Back to School – Challenges and Opportunities’ organised in September by the Press Institute of India and the UNICEF State Office for Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Schools had reopened for students in classes 9-12 in Tamil Nadu earlier in the month. Most of the parents and students who voiced their opinion on the programme were for schools reopening for all classes.

K. Lakshminarasimha Rao, Chief, Social Policy, UNICEF Chennai, said that reopening schools was extremely crucial as about 40 per cent of children did not have access to digital devices, according to a rapid survey conducted by UNICEF. The survey showed that the average number of learning hours for children daily had reduced to four to five hours. Rao referred to the “learning loss” children faced. “Their reading and mathematical ability has come down significantly and we need to take a relook at the curriculum,” he said. He also referred to the 3Cs. Striking a positive note, Rao said there was an increase in enrollment in government schools. UNICEF, he added, was for schools to be reopened. He also highlighted concerns about more children being engaged in labour and more child marriages taking place thanks to children staying away from school.

Senior pediatrician Dr Benny Benjamin was convinced that despite there being a widespread fear about a potential third wave, it was unlikely to happen as the population was heading towards herd immunity. He said that reopening schools was important because children were facing problems on the nutrition, health and psychosocial fronts, especially many children in government schools without the mid-day meals. He said that while the Omicron variant showed increased transmissibility, the mortality rate had not been as high as earlier variants. Dr Ravi Chandran, professor of Pediatrics, Institute of Child Health, felt that September was a good time for schools to reopen as the community spread was low and the herd immunity relatively high. He advised that as long as COVID-19 SOPs were strictly followed – multi-layered protection as he called it – it would be safe for children to return to school. He cautioned parents against sending a sick child to school.

Sudha Umashanker, senior journalist, suggested that schools consider appointing counsellors to help children who need such support. She stressed on focusing on the aspect of mental health affecting children as a result of school closure, and brought up the issue of domestic violence increasing during lockdowns. S Rukmani, principal, The PSBB Millennium School, OMR and Anuradha Ramakrishnan, principal, MVM, Kovilambakkam said students and staff were eager to return to schools and encouraged other schools to mandate vaccination for all working staff in schools. Speakers included Gunisha Aggarwal, a student and the founder of Help E-Learning, a community organisation that distributed more than 400 (used) digital devices to those who could not afford them for online classes. The discussion was moderated by Sanjay Pinto, advocate, columnist, and former journalist.