Schools and colleges have been closed since March 16, 2020, in the view of the outbreak of the global COVID- 19 pandemic. Later, a nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24, 2020, which was extended till May 31. According to the Human Resource Development Ministry officials, whenever the schools and colleges reopen, proper social distancing norms should be followed as the health and safety of students has to be the priority.
The Ministry’s Department of School Education and Literacy for schools and by the University Grants Commission(UGC) for universities and National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) were preparing guidelines and safety preventions for the re-opening of the schools, during an interaction of the teachers with Union HRD minister Ramesh Pokhriyal. While the UGC, has already recommended that academic session for freshers may begin in September and for enrolled students in August, schools are teaching the students through different online modes. The minister also suggested that the guidelines should cover measures like spaced out sitting arrangements, classes in shifts with a fewer number of students and online weekend classes, etc. and many more other norms to maintain social distancing in classrooms.
However, after the reopening of the schools, children will have to spend a minimum of 5 hours in school. Along with social distancing norms, it is necessary to keep in mind the children’s hygiene, which includes drinking water, sanitation, and most importantly hand washing with soap, to be operational in every school. Frequent washing of hands with soap is one of the important precautionary measures but 45% of the schools do not have hand washing facilities. After the launch of Swachh Vidyalaya Abhiyan, the coverage for the separate toilet for girls and boys has reached 93% and 87% of schools have drinking water facilities, but 52% of schools have overall wash facilities which include, functional toilets and hand wash facilities both.
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Implementation of guidelines like 30% of student strength in one day and classes in different shifts needs additional teaching time. This either requires overtime of the already existing teachers or new recruitments. Unfortunately, the status of teacher recruitments in our country is not very exciting. Around 17.6% of posts for the primary level and 15.7% posts at the secondary level for government teachers are vacant. Around 1, 08,017 schools in India are single- teacher schools, and in about 17% of schools, a teacher has to manage more than 40 children. It is difficult to imagine how understaffed teaching faculties will cope with the re-opening of the schools keeping in mind the social distancing norms.
The hygiene of the teachers is crucial not only for themselves but also for the students since after parents children spend most of their time in school with their teachers. Thus being healthy for all teachers especially for the teachers who are senior in age is necessary. Presently, around six lakh teachers who are older than 55 years are serving the school education system and are more vulnerable to the threat posed by COVID- 19. There are not enough options for the teachers as well to maintain social distancing in staff rooms as most of the schools provide single staff room for all teaching faculty, and in 55% school, there is additional room along with staff room for the principal.
Many teachers are not even aware of basic sanitation and hygiene practices to be followed in school. A survey in 453 schools by ‘WaterAid’ revealed that only 43.5% of schools have teachers trained on sanitation and hygiene. The preparedness for reopening of schools brings forth the urgency of substantial investment. It has reaffirmed the notion that implementing social distancing norms will require more resources in schools, resources for infrastructure, for filing vacant posts for teachers, for training teachers, and recruitment of non- teaching staff. For the last six years, the MHRD allocations for school education have decreased from 0.42% of the GDP in 2014-15 to 0.26% of the GDP in 2020-21.
However, the larger question remains here that whether schools are equipped to implement some of the social distancing norms discussed by the HRD minister. This needs to be informed after taking into consideration a few realities of our school education system.