New hotspots: Reopening of schools backfires as students, teachers infected

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On 31 March, six schools were ordered to be shut when over thirty students tested positive for Coronavirus in different parts of Kashmir. The next day, at least thirty-five more students and eight teachers tested positive for the infection.

The infections among a large number of students have come at a time when the region is grappling with a resurgence of the COVID19 flu as the numbers have surged at an unprecedented rate and lack of effective preventive measures is hunting at an unfolding disaster.

The emergence of infections among students began immediately after their reopening of schools on 1 March, ending a marathon shutdown of the offline education system which had begun two years ago – first due to the August 2019 lockdown and then the pandemic lockdown.

In the first week, a school teacher had tested positive in north Kashmir, and ever since, the cases had started to increase on a near-daily basis.

As the schools witness positive cases, the orders of closure are immediately given and all the primary and secondary contacts of the affected students are advised to self-isolate themselves. The SOP, however, has a serious shortcoming as students of a young age are in frequent and close contact and care with family members.

The administration had decided to open schools for students across Kashmir from 1 March as the cases of COVID-19 had registered a significant drop.

The schools had first faced a shutdown in August 2019 when New Delhi ordered a lockdown as it abrogated the region’s limited autonomy; then a lengthy phase of winter vacation was initiated; and then the pandemic’s first wave forced a renewed year-long closure.

The order to reopen the schools issued by the School Educational Department had urged the students and teachers of all the educational institutes to follow all the safety guidelines, which included social distancing, frequent hand wash, and use of masks.

While many parents welcomed the reopening of schools as a good decision, some felt the risk was too high.

Shahana Fatima, a mother of four-year-old Mohammad Muaviyah who is enrolled in Oasis Educational Institute in the Gogjibagh area of Srinagar was reluctant to send him to the school, fearing the infection.

She said that the school asked for “consent and leaves everything up to a parent” which made her question the guarantee of the safety of the students in school.

“If the schools would have been sure about religiously following the protocols and keeping our children safe, they would not ask for such consent,” she said.

Fatima claims that the government is serious on papers and nothing is actually happening on the ground.

At less risk

Even though Kashmir now faces a second wave of the pandemic, some doctors believe that the closure of schools is not a way out.

“The population at schools is of young children. They are not susceptible enough to get the COVID-19 infection. If we look at the disease spectrum and mortality among the school children, it has been minimal,” Mohammad Salim Khan, Head of the Department Community Medicine at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital, told The Kashmir Walla.

He said that the gatherings including morning assembly and lunchtime should be avoided, for now, proper sitting arrangements in classrooms should be there and the SOPs should be followed to avoid the risk of infection. “There should be no extended school time, proper handwashing, and proper spacing in buses,” said Khan.

However, the Doctors Association Kashmir (DAK) had warned the administration that it would be hard to beat the pandemic if they don’t vaccinate children. The doctors’ body had urged authorities in Jammu and Kashmir to vaccinate teachers and staff against Covid-19 before reopening schools.

The doctors had said that the Covid-19 vaccine is required to ensure a safe learning environment in schools. “Children can get infected at school and spread the virus to parents and grandparents at home who are more likely to develop severe disease,” it warned last month.

The same fear lingers around Fatima. Her father has multiple ailments and her son can become the source of spread, Fatima believes. “How can we take that risk?”

She said that when a child goes out, they don’t follow all the guidelines and might bring the virus with them to home and transmit it to the family members. “Schools have common washrooms and who would guarantee their sanitation process?”

The DAK recently released a statement calling for genetic testing of Covid-19 positive samples to rule out the possibility of a mutated strain of the virus triggering a revival of cases in the valley. “There is a surge in Covid cases in Kashmir over the past two weeks and hospitalizations have increased too,” the statement read.

DAK president, Dr. Nisar ul Hassan, influenza expert, said the “children who were largely spared in the first wave are getting infected now in large numbers which are because schools have started functioning”.

“Though children get a mild disease, they can spread the virus to others and cause community transmission,” he added.

A necessary step

Fatima has not been just a mother to Muaviyah but she becomes a teacher every morning after having breakfast. “I make sure he doesn’t sleep without learning anything every day,” she said.

She believes it’s important for children to attend school but not “at the risk of their life”. “There is no strategy or proper plan and the admin opened schools just for the sake of opening,” said Fatima.

Fatima and her family have been keenly following all the COVID-19 guidelines since the outbreak of the pandemic in Kashmir in March 2020. “If I am not sending him to school now, it’s because I am doing it for his safety,” he said.

Muaviyah has adapted to homeschooling but the situation is different with Aleena Riyaz, who misses her school and friends.

An eleven-year-old student, Aleena Riyaz of Green Valley Educational Institute in the Ellahi Bagh area of Srinagar had joined the school for just a week. The next week, positive cases started emerging which led to the closure of the school for a week.

Her school was ordered to remain shut after 25 positive cases were recorded including three teachers and four drivers last week.

While the pandemic was spreading fast, the classes were shifted online globally and the students
in Kashmir were also attending virtual classes on the 2G network. The high-speed internet was later restored after a 550 day-long shutdown in Kashmir.

The education process in Kashmir has declined as a result of the region’s recurrent clampdowns. Between August 2019 and January 2021, educational institutes hardly opened, first due to the clampdown and then due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, Riyaz has to rejoin school again from Monday but she said she will not dare to join it. “What if I get infected?” she said. “It scares me.”

The seventh standard student’s friends are also, as per her, planning to go for homeschooling – as she terms it “safe”.

Parents Association of Privately Administered Schools on 3 April requested the Director of School Education to shift the education to online mode, considering the alarming surge in fresh coronavirus cases. “The safety and security of children and teachers (with a direct effect on society at large) are of prime importance,” read the application.

The administration of J-K, however, left the decision for the local administration and directed the Deputy Commissioners to take a final call between physical or online classes.

The story was originally published 29 March – 4 April 2021 print edition. On 4 April, the administration of Jammu and Kashmir ordered the closure of all schools from primary to 9th standard for two weeks from 5th April and 10th, 11th, and 12th standards for a week from 5 April in the wake of rising Covid-19 cases in J-K.

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