We have learned well during the Covid-19 pandemic how going to school may not always be desirable. But how long this will continue in a country like ours with fewer online resources is also debatable. Many countries have begun to plan reopening schools. Meanwhile, the World Bank, WHO, Unicef, Unesco, Education International and Inter Agency Network for Education have released comprehensive guidelines on education policy responses to Covid-19 and planned framework for school reopening. But a successful reopening would rely on public trust in governments, which can be built and maintained by engaging communities in planning for such reopening. Policy makers should prioritise community engagement to build trust, shape perceptions of risk and improve responses to government policy.
Experience has taught us how to make a crisis an opportunity and how to take advantage of good practices developed from years of work in imparting education in emergencies. At least 2.8 million Syrian children had been out of school for some period during the last decade. Five million children faced the closure of schools during the Ebola epidemic in 2013 across West Africa. During 1918, the spread of Spanish Flu compelled as many as 40 US cities to close their schools and, in the UK, 1 million children were out of school during World War II. In the Darfur crisis in Sudan, children gathered regularly under trees to learn how to stay safe in a new environment to minimize the risk of cholera. Almost all the countries that have closed schools today are experiencing remote learning.
However, the recent pandemic situation has spread all over the world wherein 90 per cent of young people are enrolled in primary schools, whereas in 1920 the enrollment was only 40 per cent. In the US, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has been guiding on Covid appropriate behaviour and also how to continue education through distance learning.
Unesco estimation, as of March 2021, says that 87 per cent of the world’s education systems in more than 80 countries were still awaiting opening of their schools. As of late August 2021, data suggests that 78 per cent of the countries which had closed schools, have decided on a date to reopen. The Director General, ICMR, recently spoke in favour of school reopening as children could handle the virus better than adults. The Supreme Court in its order dated 13 January 2021 ordered states and union territories to take a decision on the opening of ICDS (Anganwadi) centres. While taking these steps, authorities must consider the risks across education, public health and socio-economic factors in the local context. It should be consistent with decisions on other physical distancing and public health response measures. More importantly, schools must look at what additional measures they can put in place to help ensure the stakeholders, that is students, teachers and other staff, are safe at school and communities are confident about sending their wards back.
With vaccines available, the fears of teachers could be eased, but with kids under 16 still not eligible for vaccination, parents and educators are anxious about the possibility of exposure to Covid-19. Children need to return to in-school learning for their healthy development and well -being, so safety in schools must be a priority. Weighing health risks of reopening of schools against education risks of continuing with remote learning, it seems that in-person education with precautions like handwashing, social distancing and avoiding crowds is desirable. These concerns may be best addressed if reopening measures are co-designed with students, parents, caregivers and teachers.
Since kids would not be vaccinated by the time their schools reopen, there needs to be a focus on keeping them safe and sound. It is important to develop strategies that may be adopted depending on the level of viral transmission throughout the community and schools. Opening schools generally would not increase community transmission to a large extent particularly when guidance obtained by WHO, Unicef and other organisations is followed.
While stressing that the goal across countries is to promote safer, in-person learning and child care, WHO suggested that decisions on full or partial closure or reopening should be taken at the local administrative level, guided by local levels of transmission of virus and the extent to which reopening of schools may enhance transmission in the community. While outbreaks may also occur in school settings, studies found an extremely low level of transmission in schools. It is known that since children are better at handling viral infections, some Scandinavian countries did not even suspend in- person classes. So, schools may not be the super-spreaders we fear they might become.
Some of the practical measures that can be taken by schools include staggering their start and closure, moving classes outdoors and holding classes in shifts. Water and hygiene facilities should play a crucial part in reopening of schools. They may make plans for catching up lessons to help bring students up to speed with refresher or remedial classes and assignments to be done at home. A blended learning model ~ a mix of class instructions and remote education may be of help at this crucial juncture.
Schools should be made safe, stimulating and enriching places for children and teens to learn. Families, schools and communities should work together to help ensure safe return to schools.
Many governments have successfully strengthened radio, television and mobile communications to deliver reopening messages. The government should implement a campaign for attendance and consider measures such as school meals targeted at the most vulnerable. It can identify and prioritise those most likely to drop out. Experience suggests that an intervention to provide protective spaces during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone allowed young girls to allocate time away from men, preventing unwed pregnancies and enabling them to enroll in school post the crisis. So, flexible approaches may be required to re-enroll students who have new demands on their time. To support re-enrollment what is required is to combine community participation and large-scale direct participation campaigns to parents and to provide financial support to help families overcome the enhanced costs of attending school.
Hopefully, over the last two decades “education in emergency” has coalesced as a eugenic field of research for academics working in humanitarian aid. The term broadly refers to ensuring people affected by emergencies and crises have access to quality education. Also, there emerged in the field a set of global standards that were developed in 2004 by the Inter Agency Network for Education in Emergencies. The INEE Maximum Standards were also developed to respond to crises in low and middle-income countries. It is high time that the “education in emergencies” community offers lessons on good practices where education is disrupted for such a long period.