Samir K Brahmachari writes: Vaccinate teachers, open schools and bridge the digital divide, especially in rural areas
The pandemic has disrupted India’s education system and widened the existing digital divide. Governments have rightly focused on lives and livelihoods and tried to strike a balance during the first and second waves. With the focus being on enhancing health infrastructure and vaccination, education has taken a back seat. As governments plan to open educational institutions, it is imperative to evolve a countrywide model framework, learning from the experience of other nations. India, unlike other smaller countries, is unlikely to vaccinate 70-80 per cent of its population in this calendar year. Should we allow the loss of another academic year, especially for those who do not have access to online teaching and learning? We need different strategies for rural and government schools vis-a-vis the better equipped urban and private schools. Similar is the case for college students.
While we have opened up vaccinations to 18-plus age groups, we need to prioritise vaccinations for school and college teachers, especially in rural India. It is sad that thousands of teachers got infected by Covid and many of them succumbed to the disease. Most such teachers were involved in state and panchayat elections. The third wave could strike after educational institutions reopen. If teachers and staff are not vaccinated by then, they could be the first victims. Available data (2014-15) indicates that there are about 3 million school teachers and 1.3 million college and university teachers in India. Adding the other staff who have direct contact with students, around 6 million education sector employees need to be vaccinated. A special drive for them, by about mid-July, can help achieve this target. Many of them, in fact, may already have been vaccinated, especially in urban areas. We must focus on vaccinating rural school and college teachers.
As soon as teachers are vaccinated by August-end, physical classes for Class XI-XII should be opened. The model practised in several countries can be an example. Morning class for 11th-graders and afternoon classes for those in Class XII can start with 50 per cent attending school for five days a week (Monday to Friday), in the first and third week, and the other 50 per cent in weeks two and four. This way, each batch of students stays home for nine days after attending school. If any student gets infected at school, a nine-day break (equivalent to quarantine) will break the chain of transmission. Schools that can provide online teaching to all their students need not have physical classes, especially in districts where the positivity rate is above 2-3 per cent. A focused effort should be made to vaccinate all students born on or before 2003.
In India, a board examination, especially the Class XII exam, is a milestone. Over 10 million students in various state and central boards appear for the higher secondary examination, which helps them to choose their future career. Given the pandemic, the Centre has correctly decided to cancel the examinations. Besides the safety of the students and their parents, the digital divide has put less privileged children, rural and urban alike, at a disadvantage. Students who did not have access to online teaching will feel handicapped. Despite that, if some states decide to conduct examinations, how can we ensure the safety of students? First, conduct examinations in the shortest possible time – a maximum of six days without any break. Two, conduct examinations for two hours in order to have multiple sessions — 9-11 am, 12-2 pm, 3-5 pm. Between sessions, classrooms, where exams are conducted, should be sanitised.
Three, all teachers on examination duty must have been fully or partially vaccinated. Four, similarly secondary board exams can be conducted but for only three to four main subjects. Five, all exams should be held for students in their respective schools but with a few invigilators from nearby schools to avoid any malpractice. Finally, only 50 per cent weightage should be given for the Class XII exam and 50 per cent to previous years’ performance, including the Class X board.
Finally, when it comes to primary, middle and secondary schools, it is important that at an early stage of their lives, children in rural and many government schools have physical classes as they don’t have access to online education. In rural areas, government school children are already missing midday meals, exacerbating nutritional deficiencies — a failure to implement the Right to Education Act. In any case, children, especially in rural settings, do not seem to be following social distancing norms while playing in their localities; but they are not attending schools. Therefore, by following the five to nine days pattern discussed above, these schools can be opened by September 2021, after the board examinations. By then, another 200-300 million people will have been vaccinated.
What is needed is a combination of selective and targeted vaccination strategies and controlled opening of schools and colleges with a continuous assessment of Covid-19 positivity cases, with an imposed limit of not greater than 2-3 per cent. This will help us avoid the third wave.
In conclusion, just as we need to improve our health infrastructure, we need to focus on minimising the digital divide: The WiFi facility has to reach all rural school and college campuses. Ways must be found to create community learning centres with free WiFi for continued learning. Governments should budget for computer notepads for students in government schools and colleges. Even as these measures may be taken up on priority, educational content that was popular during the heyday of TV and radio could be deployed immediately to engage children in education at home. The digital divide in the country must be minimised; else, we could lose one generation of creative children who would have, given equal opportunity, contributed to the nation’s economic activities more effectively.
This column first appeared in the print edition on June 3, 2021, under the title ‘How to restart schools’. The writer is founder-director, CSIR-Institute of Genomics & Integrative Biology and former director-general, CSIR, India
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