– Rashid Sharfuddin, headmaster, SelaQui International School, Dehradun
The recently announced Unlock 4.0 guidelines of the Union government and the Supreme Court’s refusal to put stay on NEET and JEE exams in September seems to hint at strong chances of schools reopening in the coming months. This has been a widely anticipated question in everyone’s mind for some time now. When will schools reopen and in what form? The government is also taking its time in trying to assess the diverse opinions and concerns on this matter. However, in all probability the uncertainties regarding reopening of educational institutions is going to be laid to rest by the end of this month.
In the wider debate about reimagining education and access to online learning for students in COVID era, two very important issues have been ignored. First and foremost, there is a huge and relevant concern of the exclusion of a large majority of children from uninterrupted learning due to limited or no access to technology and stable internet connectivity especially in India’s remote hinterlands and tier 3 cities, smaller towns and villages.
Secondly, parents, researchers and doctors are now extremely concerned about increased screen time, anxiety and stress triggered as a result of continuous use of electronic devices both among students and teachers. The impact of closure of schools on students’ mental and physical health, not to mention the limitations of the online education model to address the learning needs of differently-abled learners, is a matter of serious concern as well. All these concerns are being carefully weighed by policy makers and government officials in their decision and view about reopening of schools.
The government’s indecisiveness regarding reopening of schools is both political (unwillingness to take the blame or criticism that it may bring) and ethical (in view of children’s safety) and it is in this dilemma that the fate of more than 32 crore students hangs in oblivion.
Governments of many countries have allowed schools to reopen now with a comprehensive guideline in place and this includes boarding schools as well, which are relatively safer to operate in the present circumstances than a regular day school. We must look at reopening schools over the next two months in phases. So far, from the data reported to Word Health Organization (WHO), children and adolescents up to 18 years of age represent only about 2 percent of reported infections even though this group makes up about 29 percent of global population and in almost all cases, the symptoms they experience are usually mild. While, I am in no way suggesting we risk young children, I strongly feel learning should return back to normal. Considering almost all sectors have opened up, I feel schools should follow the same path. Most government decisions concerning reopening of various sectors is largely driven by concerns about the economy, in the sustenance of which educational institutions play a significant role.
If and when the government decides to lift the restrictions on reopening of schools, my view is that boarding schools should open first. Given their context, an excluded setting, size of the campus and the advantage of small student body, they are probably best equipped to impart education during this time.
There is no concern of students coming in close contact with others while traveling to and from school and there is also the advantage of an open and larger campus where physical distancing can be enforced both in boarding houses and play areas. Boarding schools can also provide the much needed psychological support in person to cope up with the challenges spewed by the lockdown. It will enable parents to go back to work without being worried about their children at home. Lastly, it will be easier to implement and monitor various safety and precaution measures put in place.
There is no denying that the reopening and operation of boarding schools will come with its own set of challenges and concerns but compared to day schools, these are likely to be fewer. Boarding schools must come up with a clear and comprehensive policy on getting students to campus, boarding arrangements, daily schedule, meal timings, sports and academic policies, support and teaching staff movements, inter-house and inter-school activities and visiting and outing rules, testing procedures and contingency plan in case of an outbreak. These can be put in place with good planning and some safety strict measures.
The Boarding School Association (UK), Australian Boarding Schools Association and the National Association of Independent Schools (USA) have come out with comprehensive guidelines on running boarding schools. In India, unfortunately we do not have an exclusive body or organisation of boarding schools but in the absence of one, the Indian Public Schools Conference (IPSC) that claims to be largely representing boarding schools must play a similar role in taking the lead in putting these policies in place and influencing government decisions on the matter. I am not aware of any steps that IPSC has taken on this and it will truly be an opportunity lost to remind the government about the existence of boarding schools in the country which are probably better equipped to handle teaching and learning in the Covid era. It will need vision, courage and realignment of focus and above all, an unbreakable will.
In India, there are only about 2000 boarding schools (private and government) with an approximate enrolment of one and half million students — representing a miniscule population of total children enrolled in schools across the country (around 230 million). Perhaps, too small to matter for political, moral or economic decision making. I am not even sure that the government takes cognizance of boarding schools in the public guidelines and directives issued for schools.
In Uttarakhand, especially in Dehradun, Mussorie and Nainital, there are around 200 boarding schools supporting the subsistence of hotels, restaurants and retail shops not to forget tourism. Boarding schools are about teaching grit and determination, taking responsibility, character building, facing adversity and building trust and it’s about time they stand up and get counted in the efforts to deal with the exigencies of the deadly pandemic.