With COVID-19 still in air, Kashmir risks reopening of schools

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Shazia Syed is happy that her children will finally go back to school after a gap of one and a half years, which was marked by repeated lockdowns – caused initially because of the abrogation of Kashmir’s limited autonomy and then by the pandemic.

Syed, 40, however, is worried her children, Shifa, 7, and Haya, 5, might still be at risk of being exposed to the COVID-19 virus. She is still indecisive.

“If they [school authorities] do not vaccinate them [children], then we will not send them to school,” said Syed.

Shifa and Haya are primary class students at Green Valley Educational Institute, Srinagar, and are among thousands of students who have lost 18 months of schooling, a part of which they attended via online classes. 

The educational institutes in Kashmir have been closed since 5 August 2019, following the abrogation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. Even though a few weeks later, the government had announced the reopening of schools, the parents had refused to send children to schools due to the tense security situation in the region.

The schools were later scheduled in February 2020 but were soon ordered to be closed due to the outbreak of the pandemic. 

“It’s good that they are returning to school and study. What will they do at home? They don’t listen to anybody,” Syed said.

The Syed family has been training the children to sanitize, wash hands, maintain social distance and wear masks. “But they don’t even know how to wear masks properly,” said Syed, adding that her five-year-old daughter keeps removing her mask during practice sessions at home. 

The administration has decided to open schools for students across Kashmir from 1 March as the cases of COVID-19 have registered a significant drop. The staff has been directed to attend schools from 20 February to learn the Standard Operating Protocols.

Risks and protocols

The order issued by the School Educational Department has urged all students and teachers of all the educational institutes to follow all the safety guidelines.

As per the guidelines, all students and teachers are advised to wear masks and carry their own sanitizer. In all the institutes, soaps should be made available for frequent hand-wash while maintaining a physical distance. 

To avoid the risk of transmission, the guidelines said, touching surfaces by the students and teachers in and around the area of the campus should be prohibited. “Personal hygiene and hygiene of surroundings should be ensured,” reads the order.

Other guidelines mention that the sitting arrangements of all students must be almost two meters from each other. The disinfecting, sanitizing, and cleaning of the learning spaces and laboratories must be ensured in all institutions, it said. 

The guidelines further asked the institutions to keep reminding the students of COVID-19 related precautions.

Even as the administration’s guidelines are extremely detailed, it will be difficult to implement them effectively as the classrooms in schools and colleges of the region are densely populated with students and may not be able to maintain the required social distance.

Suhail Ahmad, Assistant Professor at the Government College of Women, Srinagar said there was a need “to be extremely careful.”

He said that the coronavirus threat may have faded, but educational institutions can serve as natural clusters for the virus. “We cannot afford to lower the guard.”

“The authorities have issued detailed SOPs which if followed in letter and spirit will avert any danger,” he said. 

Since early September, educational institutes have reopened across the world and the reopening has led to an increase in the number of incidents in several countries.

The district administration of Srinagar started awaring students as well as the teachers regarding SOPs, days after the government decided to re-open the institutes. In Srinagar, there are around 1000 schools that include both private and government-operated. 

Ahmad said the resumption of regular offline classwork was much needed. “One cannot rely on online education for too long … though it has emerged as a viable alternative, remote learning cannot replace conventional face-to-face learning,” he said.

Responsibility not to be told

For Syed, the responsibility of the safety of her children will be transferred to the school authorities once they rejoin their classes. “They are small children. If we give them sanitizer, they don’t even know when to use it. They need to be told,” she said.

While speaking to The Kashmir Walla, Syed kept putting stress on how the school needs to maintain all the protocols and vaccinate the students before reopening the institutes.

The mother of two hopes that the support staff and teachers at school take care of her children and all others who are planning to attend schools.

Currently, the total cases of COVID-19 are 73422 while the fatality count is 1225 across J-K. The active cases are 500 in the valley and the recovery rate across J-K is 98 percent.

“We want to send them as their studies have already been badly hit but the fear [of Covid-19] is still there,” said Syed. 

Are things really falling into place?

Iqra Manzoor, 21-year-old Arts student at Government College for Women M A Road, the thought of going back to college had made her anxious.  

Her anxiety didn’t stop her from appreciating the decision of reopening educational institutes. “At least we will be able to attend lectures in person and also our lifestyle will be back on track,” said Manzoor, a third-year student.

The closure of educational institutes is not rare in Kashmir. In 2016, schools and colleges were closed down for almost seven months as the region had burst into widespread protest following the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani. The educational calendar was again disrupted in early 2017 as student protests had erupted in the region.

The closure of educational institutes since August 2019, however, remains the longest shutdown. “The pattern of my studies changed. Honestly, I didn’t study during these months,” said Manzoor. “I lost interest.”

Manzoor spent these months playing online games and watching movies and stand-up comedies. For her, last year was an “unproductive” year of her life. 

Ever since the colleges were shut, she has been waking up at 12:00 pm. “My sleep cycle is ruined,” said Manzoor.

Manzoor doubts that the protocols put in place by the administration will be followed effectively. 

For Manzoor, who thinks that everyone has already suffered a lot due to the August 2019 clampdown and the pandemic, the decision to reopen the college is good. “Because for Kashmiris it was important as we have already suffered a lot,” she said. 

“We haven’t studied anything, we haven’t attended college since last year. Opening colleges will help us,” said Manzoor. “Online classes didn’t help us as the internet connectivity was the worst,” she said.

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