How Can Schools Safely Reopen In India? Expert Explains

Akshita Jain
·15-min read
A school teacher gives an online class at a government school in Chennai on June 3, 2020. (Photo: ARUN SANKAR via Getty Images)
A school teacher gives an online class at a government school in Chennai on June 3, 2020. (Photo: ARUN SANKAR via Getty Images)

Even as the government has started to slowly ease restrictions and reopen public places, it is yet to take a decision on when schools in India will reopen. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) guidelines for the second phase of unlock said schools and colleges will remain closed till 31 July.

Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia has suggested that August will be a good time to reopen educational institutions depending on the Covid-19 situation and Haryana announced that it will reopen schools from 27 July.

Dr. Suzana Brinkmann, who has consulted the Government of India and UNICEF on pedagogical reforms, told HuffPost India over email that the urgent priority is not to reopen schools, but to ensure that children are learning whether or not they go to school.

A greater concern in India, she said, is that even children who are attending schools are often several grade levels behind in terms of their learning level. The Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity for India to reimagine its education system and focus on learning rather than just schooling, she said.

With several states deciding to shift classes online, concerns have been raised that it will lead to unnecessary burden on primary class students. The lack of access to stable internet connection and a laptop due to material and social reasons has also been cited.

Brinkmann suggested providing early learners with children’s graded readers and older children with encyclopaedia. Newspapers, she said, are also good reading materials.

Some European countries have already started sending students back to school. In Germany, class size has been reduced in half and France has restarted classes for primary and middle class students. Brinkmann pointed out that the measures adopted by other countries are not practical in India because of its low resources and overcrowded classrooms.

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1. Some epidemiologists quoted by NYT have said that community transmission rates should be at manageable levels for schools to reopen. When studies and experts say India is yet to hit its peak (possibly late June or late July), when do you think schools could reopen here?

In my opinion the urgent priority is not to reopen schools, but to ensure that children are learning whether or not they go to school – and research shows that sadly in India learning often does not happen even when children attend school. I am not an expert on Covid transmission, but as an educationist, the greater concern is not whether or not children are going to school, but the fact that even children who are attending schools are often several grade levels behind in terms of their learning level. As shown in the ASER 2018 report which surveyed learning levels among children in rural government schools across India, only a quarter of students in class 3 were found to be at ‘grade level’, with the majority of children failing to acquire foundational skills in literacy and numeracy. More than the effect on economies if schools remain closed for extended periods, it is also a human rights issue to deny children their right to learn and to pursue a better future if they wish to. An unexpected opportunity in the current pandemic is that it is giving people a chance to reimagine life in general, as people are forced to change systems and routines that they had formerly taken for granted. This provides India a chance to reimagine its education system in a way that will focus on the real goal of education – i.e. learning – rather than only focusing on the means to reach that goal – i.e. schooling.

2. What precautions should schools take once they reopen? How can classes be conducted while maintaining social distancing?

Firstly, many studies have found that school children do not spread the virus (see here). Out of 120,000 deaths in the US due to Covid, only 150 of them are people under the age of 25. Rather than trying to detect the virus once it has already spread as done by some nations that have conducted mass testing of students, a much easier and less resource-intensive approach would be to implement simple measures to ensure the school environment does not encourage the spread of Covid once schools reopen, and to boost children’s immunity so that they are not as susceptible in case they are exposed to the virus. Below are some simple measures that can prevent the spread of Covid in schools:

- Enforce that everyone washes their hands/arms and face well with soap as soon as they enter and right before they leave the school, as well as after breaks.

- Make sure the school is well cleaned and sanitised every day – especially any surfaces that are touched by many hands.

- Students and staff should keep masks on at all times, except when entering a classroom or office for a long time – then they can remove their masks after sanitising their hands and should sanitise hands and put on the mask again before leaving the room.

- Make sure all students and their family members have reusable masks that are washed regularly with soap, every few days.

Some simple measures that could help keep children’s immunity strong so that they are less susceptible to getting infected are to

- Ensure that the Mid-Day Meal given in schools have plenty of vegetables along with rice and dal/rajma/chole

- Give all children when they enter the school a simple Vitamin D tablet, which is easily available in any local pharmacy, and research shows is one of the best ways to keep people’s immunity strong

- If possible, also give children a tablet of iodine – also easily available, and also a proven immunity booster.

3. What do you think the challenges faced by teachers and administrators will be?

From my experience of working with teachers and governments across India for the past 12 years, I think the biggest challenge of switching to a more online, Covid-friendly style of teaching will be to change the way in which teachers relate to children. Research from around the world has shown that children of any age learn best in an environment where they feel happy, loved, and have freedom to explore good resources. Sadly, in many Indian schools – especially those for the poor – children often do not feel happy when they are inside the classroom, often do not feel loved by their teacher, and are rarely given freedom to explore good books or good learning websites available for free online.

Switching to a more child-friendly style of relating to children – one that places less pressure or fear on them, and to a way of teaching-learning that is more fun and interesting for children, will continue to be a struggle for both teachers and administrators, whether or not children are able to physically come to school.

This was the focus of my doctoral research, and what I found in my research in three Indian states is that this failure to change the nature of relationships in both classroom and teacher training halls has been one of the key barriers to changing both teaching and learning in the Indian government education system, despite decades of efforts and crores of rupees spent by the Indian government to bring about this shift through programs like the District Primary Education Program (DPEP) and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA).

A student attends an online class during the lockdown on April 3, 2020 in New Delhi. (Photo: Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
A student attends an online class during the lockdown on April 3, 2020 in New Delhi. (Photo: Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

4. How important has adapting to online learning become? Can it be considered an effective replacement for face-to-face classes?

Absolutely online learning can be a very effective interim mechanism to help children continue learning during the current pandemic. However, for real learning to take place, it would need to be based on a very different style of teaching and relating to children than what characterises many Indian classrooms. Otherwise the current teaching style predominant in many Indian schools, if taken online, would only end up adding more burden, fear, and boredom to children’s already heavy plates – all of which are not very conducive to helping children learn.

Some easy suggestions are listed below for ways in which online learning could be conducted in a manner that is interesting and stress-free for children, and that would help facilitate children’s understanding of curricular topics.

5. One of the biggest problems with online classes in a country like India is the lack of access due to material and social reasons. How can administrators plug this gap?

There are many ways school and district administrators could help facilitate learning through online classes despite limited resources – so long as they invest their resources strategically in what will actually make the biggest difference to children’s learning. Some suggestions are listed below:

- Train mothers – who usually have the most time and motivation to help their children succeed – on some simple learning games they can play at home with their young children.

For example, even uneducated mothers know how to count: they can start teaching their young children how to count, add and subtract, using rajma beans. Or they can let children measure things while helping them in the kitchen, or for older children there are simple science experiments they could do with their children using household ingredients.

- Provide early learners with a few easy children’s graded readers in the state language which they can keep at home (NCERT’s Barkha series is an excellent example and is available for free online in Hindi). For older students, deliver a good, easy children’s encyclopaedia to their home. Have homework assignments based on these.

- Many Indian homes have access to local newspapers which can provide excellent reading materials. Children don’t need textbooks to learn how to read or to learn about what’s happening in their state or country – they only need access to a lot of interesting reading materials, incentives from their school that make it worth their while to read these materials, and access to a teacher who has the time and motivation to help them if they have any questions.

- Most families in India now have a smartphone where they can access internet. One of the easiest ways for children to learn maths is to play games on a free website. This is what my 6-year-old has been playing on my phone the last few years and now maths is one of his favourite subjects. Or probably the best free website I’ve ever come across for helping Indian children learn to develop a love for reading good books or that gives parents ideas of simple toys they can make using trash material is this. It has hundreds of some of the best books ever written in English for young readers available for free in both English and many Indian languages – I would highly recommend this website for any Indian parent.

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6. Can online teaching be implemented for all classes? There have been apprehensions that this would lead to unnecessary burden on primary class students.

Unfortunately the way teaching is conducted in many of the schools for the poor already places an inordinate burden on young children – one that is neither conducive to their learning nor to their healthy emotional development. However, if online teaching is conducted in a manner different from the average classroom – one that is more child-friendly and sensitive to children’s needs and perspectives – then it can definitely aid rather than hinder children’s healthy growth and development. For younger foundational classes (ages 3-8), the focus should be less on covering textbook content and more on developing the foundational skills of reading, writing, and maths. Various suggestions have been given above for how this could be done through online classes in a manner that is more effective and enjoyable for children. For older students, if the school authorities can ensure that every child has access to some good books and an encyclopaedia-type book (this could be a combination of some physical books and some electronic ones), then online classes could give space for students to clarify any questions they have from their reading, and for the teacher to facilitate a discussion around the material they read the previous day. Marks should be given for active student participation, and any lectures should be confined to a 15-minute recap by either the teacher or a student who volunteers of what students should have covered in yesterday’s homework. Children should be assessed not on whether they remember the content in the textbook, but on whether they have truly understood the skills appropriate for that class.

7. UNICEF’s Executive Director said, “We know the longer children stay out of school, the less likely they are to ever return.” Will the closure of school during lockdown mean students from poorer households won’t be able to return? What can be done to encourage people to send children back to classes?

I have worked for UNICEF for many years and very much support their efforts, especially in countries where education systems are not yet strong. But in my experience, children learn best independently even from home – so long as they have access to an educated, motivated adult who is able to guide them and answer any questions they have (i.e. a teacher). This can be done quite easily though an online class, if children are given space to and encouraged to ask questions. Secondly, research from around the world shows that children learn best when they have an encouraging adult who can facilitate discussions with their peers on the topic they are learning about. That is the main purpose why children need to go to school to learn, especially in developing countries where parents are often uneducated, and lack both ability and time to be able to guide their children’s learning. But sadly, these two things – a motivated and encouraging teacher, and an environment where students can have open-ended guided peer discussions – rarely happen in most Indian schools. In my opinion this is one of the key reasons why nearly two-thirds of our country’s children struggle with very poor learning levels in government schools or low-income private schools.

UNICEF’s Director in the article cited above rightly pointed out many difficult issues commonly faced by children in developing countries which certainly impede their learning – rising inequality, poor health, violence, child labour, child marriage, to name just a few of the most common issues faced. But I disagree with the conclusion that things like rising inequality and poor health outcomes cannot be addressed unless children physically attend school. I think it is up to well-meaning organisations like UNICEF to make parents aware of very simple things they can do from home – even if they lack education or resources – to keep their children healthy especially during the current pandemic, and to support their children to continue learning even from home (see suggestions proposed above, and websites by homeschooling parents around the world, including in India). Even encouraging children to play common games near the house like carrom, card games, or ‘7 stones’ (langori) can help children learn many important mathematical skills and motor coordination skills.

8. What can India learn from other countries that have begun reopening schools?

Many of the countries that have begun reopening schools are industrialised nations, so I don’t actually believe some of the measures they have implemented are applicable in a country like India. For example, the NYT article cited above lists examples such as Germany, Australia, Belgium, Austria, or even China, arguing that ‘how [these] countries that have led the way on many fronts handle this stage in the pandemic will provide an essential lesson for the rest of the world’. These countries have implemented measures such as cutting class sizes in half, turning school hallways into one-way systems, telling students to dress warmly because windows and doors are kept open for air circulation, separating students during lunch break using plastic dividers on cafeteria tables, holding classes one day a week for a quarter of the students from each grade, or mass testing of all students and teachers. While good in theory, unfortunately these measures are simply not practical in a country like India, with low resources, overcrowded classrooms where students sometimes sit on the floor crammed into one room, and with its hot weather where there is little air circulation in many parts of the country, especially in the current hot and humid season. Besides the social distancing and hygiene rules that many schools may already be implementing, the current crisis provides an opportunity for India to lead the way in setting an example for how other developing nations can reverse high community transmission rates despite limited resources and difficult circumstances.

9. Many states in India lag in providing equitable education to children. Is there an opportunity here for governments to reimagine what the public education system should be like?

Absolutely. This is a great opportunity both for helping schools and systems to re-focus on the real goal of learning, not just going to school, as well as for helping schools implement some of the equity and inclusion policies the Indian government has been trying to implement for decades. A simple thing district and state administrators could do to promote equitable education both during the current pandemic and otherwise is to give extra priority to the most marginalised, or to invest the greatest resources in those students and blocks that are most struggling academically. To begin with, during the current pandemic, the provisions listed in Q. 2 should be provided for free to the most marginalised students.

Moreover, the teacher could be intentional in building relationships with families of students who are performing most poorly – through personal Whatsapp calls, voice messages or video calls with those students and their parents, to discuss why they’re struggling and what can be done about it.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.