Shivani Chaturvedi (Chennai)
Under lockdown to check the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic for over one year, Tamil Nadu’s 37,500 government schools and 12,000 unaided private schools resumed on-campus teaching-learning for classes IX-XII on September 1 subject to maintaining strict Covid protocols and 50 percent capacity, i.e, alternate days attendance. Currently, 4.5 million children are enrolled in senior and higher secondary classes statewide. Although no student is forced to attend in-school classes because the online option is available, with a third pandemic wave imminent, public opinion on the issue of starting classroom teaching is divided.
The state government order of August 6, permitted government and private schools to resume in-class teaching-learning for senior school and higher secondary students because the number of Covid positive cases in Tamil Nadu has fallen from a peak of more than 3.13 lakh to 16,478 currently (September 2). Despite this, parental consent is mandatory.
For private school managements suffering the load of unpaid tuition fees while stuck with high campus maintenance costs, the resumption of in-school classes promises improved cash flows. Therefore, some of them are pulling out all stops to make their campuses safe.
“We have stocked masks and sanitisers in the school with teachers instructed to sensitise students about the importance of masking. Besides, in our classrooms we have ensured 6 ft distancing between benches with only 20 students per classroom. Students have also been advised not to share their lunch meals. To ensure that online classes for elementary school students are not hampered, we have provided wi-fi connection at school for teachers to conduct online classes. Further, we have not resumed the school bus service as maintaining social distance is a challenge on board buses,” says S. Bhagavath, correspondent at the private independent Bharath Advanced Higher Secondary School near Nagercoil in Kanyakumari district, which has 500 students and 39 teachers on its muster rolls.
After the lockdown of schools countrywide for almost 60 weeks — the longest schools lockdown worldwide — Tamil Nadu’s children are eager to return to in-school classes with some institutions reporting 94 percent attendance. However, such back-to-school enthusiasm has created unforeseen problems for some institutional managements.
“We have 2,000 senior and higher secondary students. As per the government order, we can accommodate only 20 students in one classroom. On day one of reopening 94 percent of our students attended, forcing us to introduce a shift system alternating Tamil and English medium students in classes IX and XI. For children preparing for board exams — classes X and XII — daily classroom attendance is mandatory. We have to see how this system works and are ready to change the programme if necessary,” says an assistant headmistress at the state-aided St. Joseph’s Convent Higher Secondary School, Nagercoil, who preferred to remain anonymous.
For children from low-income urban households and rural students with Internet connectivity and digital devices deficits, the newly elected DMK government’s schools restart order has come as a huge relief. “For students in rural areas leveraging technology has been an 18 months-long headache generating huge loss of learning. I run a pharmacy in Salem district and a day prior to schools reopening, our sale of masks shot up to 1,000 daily as against 100 daily during the lockdown. Parents are happily buying masks, sanitisers and gloves and eager for children to resume conventional classes. The general belief is that classroom learning has to resume with strict safety protocols in the best interest of students,” says Senthil Kumar, whose niece is “happily attending” class IX in-school education.
Although the elite and upper middle class tend to be wary about sending children back to school campuses until a children’s vaccine becomes available and more so because their homes are wired for digital learning, the new DMK government has won appreciation of the majority of parents who lack digital infrastructure and learning from home facilities. They are well aware that the learning loss their children have suffered during the past 15 months could blight their future. Hence the determined but cautious schools reopening initiative of the DMK government is receiving widespread appreciation.
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