Schools for hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri students have been shut for the past fourteen months, ever since the clampdown by the Government of India in Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) on 5 August 2019 and continuing further after the outbreak of COVID-19.
Even as confirmed cases of infection continue to rise in India, the country has eased the lockdown to restart life as usual, almost. This week the J-K administration reopened schools with half the staff on duty and replacing regular classes with “consultation” sessions, but students can’t attend schools without the written consent of their parents.
Several countries across the world have come up with innovative ways to restart education and many have borne the brunt — a dramatic increase in infections — of reopening schools without a plan. The Kashmir Walla spoke with the sector’s leading thinkers on how to restart education in Kashmir?
Nisar ul Haq, epidemiologist and a parent to high-school children
At a time when cases are rising massively, the figures are still underestimated and scores are dying daily. Scientifically, I think this is not the appropriate time to restart schools. Straightaway no. Ideally, the reopening of schools should be done when the cases are declining. In Kashmir, it is not even the second wave of COVID-19, we are yet to reach the peak of the first wave.
At the national level, these decisions should be based on what is locally happening in context of COVID-19. For example, reopening schools in Delhi, Kerala, or even the United States, may not necessarily apply to Kashmir. The reopening of schools should be micromanaged by the administration in J-K.
At this point of time in Kashmir, the virus is behaving aggressively. Reopening schools isn’t wise. In the US, they reopened the schools and within a few weeks, one lakh children tested positive [for COVID-19]. In Israel, schools saw [fresh] outbreaks after unlocking and spread the virus further to the community, it was their second wave and another strict lockdown was imposed.
We predict things on fundamental principles of virology and past pandemic viruses. This is a new virus and we do not know much about it; as it goes on, we learn about it. The studies suggest that children are as prone to infection as adults and they are developing serious syndromes after months of infection. Even if one child dies, it is somebody’s world. By reopening schools, numbers may escalate and the wave will strengthen.
My children are studying in high school and I’m not sending them to school. The guidelines say that sending the children to schools is voluntary and parents should decide. I’m a doctor but not all parents are medicos or experts. It is the duty of concerned authorities to see to it. It is the government’s duty you cannot leave it to parents. It is unfortunate. For god’s sake, correct it.
The authorities should form strict guidelines [informed] with medical opinion. It is not a law and order problem, it is not an optional thing. We cannot afford to lose even one child’s life and that should be the goal.
Baseema Anayat, Vice-chairperson SRM Welkin Higher Secondary School, Sopore
The pandemic is going to go on for quite some time and if we look at the mental trauma that students in Kashmir have gone through, they have been the worst hit. The government’s decision to reopen the school is well-taken because it is high time that students venture out of their homes, they would definitely get a breathing ground. Here, the students don’t have recreational spaces unlike outside. What do our students have? Their only mode of recreation was school, where they could meet their friends. So when this option was shut, they were caged inside their homes, working without internet or with restricted internet. I personally have seen that several students did suffer from depression and suicidal tendencies.
The pandemic is dangerous but the need to get students out in recreational spaces surpasses that. But we have to keep in mind that we need to follow the protocols. Personally, we are working parents where we spend the day in social setup, so when we go back home, we can be carriers of the virus. Then how are we saying that a child is safe at home?
We have been facing [financial] issues at the school. At least, if the government can make it compulsory for the parents to pay up, things would have been really different. We have parents with government jobs who aren’t paying fees.
Today [on 23 September], I ventured into a classroom and no student greeted. It was very strange. So, I had to remind them how we used to work. It is a small thing but we can actually make out what impact the discontinuation of regular classes and school environment has had on children’s minds.
The government needs to redesign the city to cope with COVID-19. The current order is quite ambiguous.
Adil Yaseen Shah, a teacher at Government School in Pulwama’s Drabgam
People are taking COVID-19 too lightly, they aren’t doing anything but have left it to fate.
At our school, students live nearby and reach school on foot. On the way to school, they play along, push one another in groups, how would one maintain social distance? It is impossible. I’ve been teaching students in community classes for the past two months but if schools reopen, we have to follow a schedule: 40-minutes lecture, 40 students in a class together. It puts them at a high risk. Reopening of schools is putting the future in danger.
Elder children still understand the protocol but to a primary or middle school student, it would take us two years to make him understand. Education should be restarted via either community classes or online classes. It is the 21st century, even if your household has no literate person, you’ll find one in the locality, they can teach the children.
Distance children from the school but not from the education. I feel it is a failure of the government as they failed to restore high-speed internet. I cannot deliver up to my potential on this internet speed.
But education has to restart. There should be no mass promotion. Such a child is qualified, not educated. The government gives scholarships, why can’t they give resources like smartphones to the students and restore the high-speed internet for education. This deprives students of education and it is more dangerous than pandemic.
GN Var, president of Jammu and Kashmir Private Schools Association
Everyone knows that COVID-19 is unpredictable. It is not only about Kashmir, the government even at the national level is not able to manage it. Kashmir is under community-spread. Now, we have to think about restarting education in COVID-19 reality and saving students’ academic careers. Education is an emergency and the world is coping up with high-speed internet with e-learning. Here, with internet restrictions, the physical presence can’t be avoided. So, the government should take all the stakeholders, including private sector, on board, and share logistics, as well as coordination with health professionals then I don’t think it is a big problem.
The government’s problem is that they give the same order for everyone measuring everyone with the same yardstick. Right now, we have some schools with open-air space and others with large infrastructure but not in all. Some schools can’t maintain SOPs due to lack of infrastructure. But if we have coordination, we can share logistics and help each other.
Parents should also be taken on board, then phase-wise, or shift-wise, education can be brought on track. The government has to show that they are willing.
Education is at halt since July 2019, we understand that after a three-month break, the chance of a student returning to school is 70 percent lesser. Their interest fades away. And it is not just about the pandemic. The issue here is that the education is shut for more than a year and it has happened before also because of the political situation. We have to make political instability a factor in our academic timetable, we have to function accordingly and devise a mechanism so that education is not stopped. Like, a locality is observing a strike, it is not necessary that the city is observing a strike. The schools elsewhere should remain open.
The education department has done a commendable job but the administration’s role has been very negative. That needs coordination.
The story originally appeared in our 28 September – 4 October 2020 print edition.