The Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) administration has decided to open schools — with 50 percent attendance of staff and students — in the region from 21 September. However, the attendance of students will be subject to the written consent of their parents.
Officials of the administration have claimed that the COVID-19 prevention protocol will be followed when the schools reopen, even as online classes will continue, but how safe is reopening schools?
While the Government of India has stated that reopening school is not compulsory, the “Unlock 4.0” guidelines released by the Ministry of Home Affairs has allowed for schools to partially reopen for the teaching and non-teaching staff as well as for the voluntary attendance of students of standards 9 to 12.
The final decision to reopen or not, however, rests solely with the regional governments. The J-K administration has decided to go ahead when even small states like Uttarakhand and Delhi have deferred the reopening of schools.
The J-K administration’s decision comes despite the surging numbers of coronavirus cases–for the last fifteen days, the region has recorded over a thousand confirmed cases on a daily basis whereas the death toll is inching closer to the 1000 mark.
Across the world, schools have reopened since early September and both the staff and students have reacted with a mix of excitement and anxiety with the development. In some places though reopening has led to a surge in the number of cases, the example being of Pakistan where authorities have sealed schools in Karachi after they were found breaching protocols.
The dilemma is very real for parents who are concerned about their children’s wellbeing as well as their education.
The Doctors Association Kashmir (DAK) has said that reopening schools at a time when COVID-19 cases are surging could worsen the crisis. “Reopening schools while COVID-19 is still circulating widely could accelerate virus transmission in the community,” said DAK President Dr Nisar ul Hassan, an influenza expert. “With cases rising thick and fast, opening schools could further deteriorate the situation, the effect of which could be worse than what has happened.”
Dr. Hassan said that studies have shown that children are as likely to be infected with COVID-19 as adults. A report from the United States has revealed that about 97,000 children were infected within two weeks of schools reopening in the country. In Israel, a second wave of infection has been directly linked to the opening of schools.
While most children who get COVID-19 develop mild illness, Dr. Hassan said, several hundreds have died of respiratory failure or an inflammatory syndrome. “A recent German study suggested that children may be as infectious as adults and can spread the virus as easily as adults,” he said. “Children can get infected at school and spread the virus to parents and grandparents at home who are more likely to develop severe disease. Children can also transmit the virus to teachers and other staff at school.”
Dr. Hassan said that flu is just around the corner and most children tend not to follow social distancing and are not particular about personal hygiene, putting them at risk of severe COVID-19 disease. As per the criteria for reopening of schools there should be a minimum 14 days of declining cases before even considering reopening, said Dr Hassan.
“The existing infrastructure of most schools can be fertile grounds for virus transmission,” he added. “We understand the impact of prolonged closure of schools on children, but we are not in a favorable situation to open schools.
Dr. Faheem Younus who is the head of the Infectious Diseases department at the University of Maryland, Upper Chesapeake Health says, “If community spread of COVID-19 is under control, it’s perfectly fine to open schools. If community spread is still ongoing then it’s not a good idea,” he told The Kashmir Walla.
While it cannot be ignored that Kashmiri children have not been to school for over a year now, it has to be kept in mind that the schools in the region do not have proper infrastructure to allow reopening of schools at this juncture.
One way to open schools could be to allow classes in fields, as studies have shown that virus is more likely to infect in closed spaces and scientists and researchers have called on people to have ventilated residences. However, the tricky question here would be whether the schools have enough area to allocate so many students.
In this scenario it would be prudent to keep the schools closed. While the World Health Organisation says that children are less likely to suffer due to the virus, they have made it clear that they can infect others while being asymptomatic which can be dangerous for the elderly family members.
The administration’s decision to allow voluntary attendance has also led to questions from parents. Their questions vary, What about students who would not be allowed to go to schools by parents? Will their education not be affected?
While the authorities have explained that the reopening of schools won’t affect online classes. The question that comes to mind is who will hold classes when teachers will get busy at schools?