Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)
Within six weeks of reopening senior schools (class IX-XII), colleges and universities after a prolonged 65-70 weeks lockdown because of exaggerated fear of the Covid-19 pandemic, West Bengal’s 92,000 government and 1,500 private schools, 372 colleges and 32 universities have been ordered to shut down again from January 3. A mere two citizens testing positive for the Omicron variant of Covid-19 on January 1 — taking the total number of Omicron cases in West Bengal (pop.91 million) to 16 — and 13,300 active Coronavirus cases has spooked the state’s Trinamool Congress government which was returned to power in Writer’s Building, Kolkata, for a third consecutive term last May.
Unsurprisingly, there’s rising outrage within the state’s 6 lakh strong teachers’ community that every time there’s a surge in Covid cases, schools and colleges are among the first to be forced to shutdown and last to reopen. Pre-occupied with cobbling a multi-party coalition to take on the BJP government at the Centre in General Election 2024, chief minister Mamata Banerjee seems to have no time for the education of the state’s 28 million children and youth.
Critics are quick to point out that whereas government in Kerala, which has reported 109 Omicron positive cases, and Maharashtra 450, have resolved to keep schools open, West Bengal’s TMC government has ordered another shutdown of schools after 16 cases recorded on January 2.
The TMC government’s exaggerated caution about keeping education institutions open is in sharp contrast to its political populism. During Durga Puja (October), Christmas and New Year celebrations huge crowds were permitted to congregate. Educationists trace the rise in Covid positive cases to pandemic protocols being thrown to the winds during these festive months. And while malls, shops, public transport are permitted to function with 50 percent capacity, education institutions have been ordered to completely shut down.
The consequences of this reckless attitude towards children’s education are beginning to manifest. Although on-campus classes for higher secondary (classes IX-XII) and college and university students were permitted to resume on November 16, attendance is thin. Sentient educationists attribute this to the unprecedented lockdown of schools for 73 weeks. A large number of the state’s 24 million children unable to access the Internet and digital devices and consequently totally deprived of online learning, have dropped out of the education system. And those who haven’t started working in low-end jobs are in grave danger of forgetting what they had learned.
“The prolonged lockdown of schools is gross violation of the Right of Children to Free & Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, which made free and compulsory elementary education a fundamental right of all children. Several authoritative studies in India and abroad have concluded that children are at least risk of hospitalisation because of Covid infection. The West Bengal government should immediately order re-opening of all education institutions from preschool onwards with batches attending on alternate days or three times per week, in line with rules applicable to shopping malls, retail stores, restaurants etc. Risks to children’s health must be balanced against their suffering irretrievable learning loss and psychological damage,” says Shruti Goswami, assistant professor at Kolkata’s high-ranked St. Xavier’s College.
Meanwhile, on December 13, the education ministry announced setting up an expert committee to design bridge courses for classes I-VIII to make up for lost learning when schools reopen. Moreover, with the Central government directing that adolescents in the 15-18 years age group should be vaccinated from January 3, chief minister Mamata Banerjee has set the health ministry an ambitious target of vaxxing 4.8 million teens within 30 days.
However, with reports of massive dropouts, after schools for class IX-XII were reopened on November 16, there is growing indignation within West Bengal’s academia and bhadralok (refined middle class) about the TMC’s reckless closure of education institutions without due application of mind. Curiously, West Bengal’s TMC government seems unaware that between reopening and locking down schools there are acceptable half-way solutions.