Dipta Joshi (Mumbai)
In a classic case of too many cooks, the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition government’s grand plans to reopen schools from August 17 onwards has run awry because of divergence of opinion between its two Covid-19 management task forces. Fearing resurgence of the pandemic in the state, the general task force chaired by Dr. Sanjay Oak, vice chancellor, D.Y. Patil University, has recommended that schools remain closed until Diwali (November 14). On the other hand, the paediatric task force led by Dr. Suhas Prabhu, consultant for paediatric infectious diseases at the P.D. Hinduja Hospital and Medical Research Centre, Mumbai, has recommended schools reopening by end-September subject to strict adherence to Covid-19 safety protocols.
No sooner did the two task forces make their divergent reports public, state education minister Varsha Gaikwad put an August 10 government resolution (GR) to restart schools on hold. In the absence of official clarification, the overwhelming majority of private schools in Maharashtra have not resumed in-class schooling.
There is a backstory to this confusion. Weeks after the first lockdown (March 25-April 14, 2020), the state government constituted a nine-member general task force chaired by Dr. Oak to supervise, monitor and suggest measures to curb the spread of the pandemic in the state. The 13-member pediatric task force chaired by Dr. Prabhu was set up a year later on May 27, in anticipation of a third wave of the pandemic that is forecast to impact children.
The task forces’ reservations have derailed the government’s plans to greenlight conditional resumption of in-person classes in areas where Coronavirus infections are under control. The MVA government’s August 10 GR permitted secondary schools in rural areas to hold in-person classes for class V-XII children from August 17. Simultaneously, urban schools were permitted to start in-person instruction for class VIII-XII students subject to their following standard operating procedures (SOPs) including double vaccination of all staff and teachers and compulsory parental approval for all students attending physical classes.
This back and forth on the issue of resuming in-school classes in Maharashtra’s 46,365 secondary schools with an aggregate enrolment of 13 million students is not new. Earlier, a GR dated July 7 permitted conditional reopening of secondary schools (classes VIII-XII) from July 15 in rural habitats that didn’t report any Coronavirus cases in the month preceding. This resulted in 17,701 schools restarting on-campus learning for 1.5 million children. Had the August 10 GR been followed, schools in 25 of the state’s 36 districts that have reported low numbers of Covid cases would have reopened in the second phase.
“Unfortunately even three months into the new academic year (2021-22) the government is still debating schools reopening. Given experience of the past year of lockdown, one would have expected better co-ordination between the government and its own task forces regarding SOPs. The government needs to ensure all schools are reopened immediately to complete the syllabus for the current academic year 2021-22. We cannot afford another year without exams since we have no reliable data to fall back on when evaluating students because no exams were conducted in 2020-21,” says Mahendra Ganpule, spokesperson and former president, Maharashtra Principals Association.
With schools across India’s premier industrial state (pop.115 million) in lockdown since March 2020, the MVA government is under fire from academics for being indifferent to the learning loss of children. Jana Arogya Abhiyaan (JAA), a Pune-based health advocacy group, has demanded government makes the reports of the two task forces public. Warning about rising cases of tuberculosis because of loss of the free mid-day meal in government primary schools and anganwadis, JAA has urged immediate reopening of primary schools as well.
While educators have for long warned about schools closure resulting in high dropout rates and children not being able to cope when they return to school, there’s a groundswell of opinion among parents, especially from low-income households, for immediate resumption of in-school learning.
A survey conducted by the State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERT) in July indicates 81 percent of the state’s parents want schools to reopen at the earliest with precautionary measures.
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