Reshma Ravishanker (Bengaluru)
In line with other states such as West Bengal, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, following a sudden spurt in Covid-19 infections triggered by the Omicron variant, Karnataka’s BJP government has ordered an immediate shutdown of primary-secondary schools and switch to online instruction with effect from January 6. Optional on-campus classes are permitted for classes X-XII students and for medical, paramedical and nursing colleges. Meanwhile even before the closure order most CBSE, CISCE and international boards affiliated schools in Bengaluru had switched to the online mode as majority of parents are refusing to send children to school after the outbreak of Omicron variant.
Voice of Parents, a Bengalurubased parents’ association, has demanded that the BJP government immediately shut all primarysecondary schools in light of rising Covid-19 infections. On January 7, the state recorded 8,449 new cases.
“We have requested the state government to accord top priority to the health and well-being of children and immediately suspend all in-person classes in schools and colleges in districts reporting high numbers of Covid-19 infections. Parents are fearful and don’t want to send children to school as many in the medical fraternity have predicted that the third wave will hit children. The state’s education minister testing Covid-19 positive has also frightened parents. Moreover, many private schools are not being transparent and failing to report on-campus Covid positive cases,” says Chidananda P.E, an office-bearer of Voice of Parents.
But reluctance to reopen schools following 65-70 weeks of lockdown is a minority middle and upper class phenomenon. Parents and children from bottom-of-the-pyramid households cooped up for over 18 months in cramped homes without Internet connectivity and digital devices can’t wait for schools to reopen in earnest. Comments D. Shashi Kumar, general secretary, Associated Managements of Private Schools in Karnataka (KAMS), which has a membership of 3,900 mainly budget private schools: “After almost 64 weeks of lockdown, schools have started to report good student attendance. In class X, our schools are seeing almost 90 percent attendance. With our member schools strictly following Covid protocols and ensuring social distancing and temperature checks, they are safer than weddings, malls and restaurants. After the unbearably prolonged March 2020-November 2021 lockdown, government’s top priority should be to ensure that youngest children’s learning is not lost forever. Schools including pre-primaries and primaries should be restarted right now. Expert medical opinion is clear that children are the least susceptible to Covid infection.”
According to Shashi Kumar, two years after the pandemic spread havoc in India and abroad and governments experimented with shutting down schools for varying lengths of time, “the biggest lesson learnt” is that the damage caused to children’s learning and future prospects is irreparable and devastating. “This is especially true of children born into low-income homes with poor Internet connectivity and digital equipment. Their cognitive development is seriously endangered,” he warns.
This trend is confirmed by the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2020 Karnataka Rural published by the highly-respected Pratham Education Foundation. ASER 2020 says that 56.8 percent of class I students surveyed cannot recognise/read Kannada language alphabets (cf. 40 percent in 2018) and only 34 percent of class V students can read a class II text (cf. 46 percent). The decline in maths learning is worse. An estimated 42 percent of class I students cannot recognise numbers from one to nine (cf. 30 percent in 2018). Only 17.3 percent of class III students are able to do subtraction sums (cf. 26.3 percent) and only 38.9 percent of class VIII students can do simple division sums.
Meanwhile, in an unambiguous message, the Bengaluru-based National Coalition on the Education Emergency (NCEE) has urged the state government to reopen schools and operate them in shifts while maintaining Covid protocols. “Many schools in rural areas have an enrollment of less than 50 children. They are in many cases, in the same community bubble and already play with one another outside their homes. There is absolutely no justification in closing them,” says an NCEE statement.
Perhaps instead of taking unilateral knee-jerk decisions regarding closure of schools, the state government should first consult education professionals.