Rajat Sharma

Reopening schools during Covid: What parents, teachers must guard against

rajat-sir Schools in several states across India reopened after a gap of nearly 17 months with most of the students happy to return to their alma mater and meet their friends. However the attendance was low due to fear about Covid-19 in the minds of most of the parents. While social distancing, alternate seating arrangements, wearing of masks, staggered lunch breaks and thermal screening were scrupulously followed by school managements, parents continued to be sceptical about whether these measures would prevent their wards from getting infected by Coronavirus.

There are questions in the minds of parents about a possible third wave of pandemic. An ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) report says that the third wave could reach its peak in India in October. Several parents are questioning the advisability of reopening schools if a third wave is going to come after a month. Another research study from IIT, Kanpur, says there is no possibility of a third wave coming soon.

Parents are now confused about which report to trust, with news coming from the US about a large number of school children infected with Covid-19 virus as pandemic is sweeping large parts of that country. There are also uncertainties about a Covid vaccine for children, which is yet to come. Parents are confused about whether to send their children only after they get vaccinated with two doses.

State governments have left the responsibility of taking care of students to the schools, while school managements have left the decision about sending children to the parents. Families across India are presently confused about whether to continue with online classes, and wait and watch till the situation eases.

On September 1, schools in Delhi, UP, Haryana MP, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu reopened under strict SOP guidelines, but attendance was thin. Most of the parents chose not to send their children to school. On their part, children were happy to return to their temples of learning and meet old friends after a year and a half.

I have met many parents who told me that social behaviour of their children have undergone a sea change during the past 17 months. With playgrounds and parks closed, most of the children had been showing fatigue after being locked inside their homes with their cellphones and computers. Small kids have been spending too much screen time on cell phones and laptops, adversely affecting their mental health. Some of the kids now require speech therapy, because they are unable to speak coherently. Teenagers nowadays get angry too easily and they have become rude and petulant, due to lack of exposure to the outside world.

In my prime time show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’ on Wednesday night, I interviewed AIIMS director Dr Randeep Guleria and asked him about the possibility of a third wave of pandemic. He said, the possibility of a third wave still exists because most of the people in India are yet to take vaccines to create antibodies for protection. He said, cases may rise if a third wave comes, but the number of hospitalizations and deaths could be less compared to the second wave.

Dr Guleria said, according to serosurveys conducted so far, most of the people have taken a single dose of vaccine, and if at all the third wave comes, there will be not too many cases of serious illness. Covid vaccines, he pointed out, normally provide protection from serious illnesses, hospitalization and deaths. He said, in the ICMR modelling data, the range for a strong third wave has been shown from October till January, while other modelling data had other conclusions based on several variables, “which we do not know”.

The AIIMS director told me that it all depends on the behaviour of the virus. “If it mutates into other variants and spreads, then the number of cases will surely rise. It also depends on the behaviour of people at large. If people in India follow Covid appropriate behiavour during the oncoming festive season, then the third wave may either not come at all or if it comes, it will not be deadly.”

To my question on whether the possible third wave could affect children more, Dr Guleria said, “this theory about the third wave targeting children was floated because none of the children had been vaccinated so far. If we go through the data about the second wave in India, and in Europe and UK, we will find that very few children were affected by the virus and there were few cases of serious illnesses among them.”

Dr Guleria aid, “Healthy children who had Covid, faced mild infections, by and large. Moreover the ICMR serosurvey data show that 55 to 60 per cent children had already developed strong antibodies against the virus. It means that more than half of the children already had mild Covid infection and had developed antibodies already. We can, therefore, say that children, by and large, have acquired immunity. So, even if a third wave comes, children may not be infected with severe diseases and they may face mild infection. “

To my question whether parents should now send their children to schools or not, the AIIMS director said, “They can send them to schools in those states where the positivity rate is low, like in Delhi. Yet, students must follow Covid appropriate behaviour in schools, and teachers and all school workers must get themselves vaccinated.”

Dr Guleria said,”Schools should start with 50 per cent attendance, or with staggered timings, and they must provide hand sanitizers and other Covid precautions for students. Schools can function in those areas only, where the positivity rate is low. There must be constant monitoring and surveillance, and if it is found that the positivity rate is rising, then we may have to shut down the schools. Opening schools does not mean that we are opening them permanently, there is a risk-benefit analysis behind it. We should allow schools to open only in areas with low positivity rate, and that too, under close supervision and following good Covid appropriate behaviour.”

When I pointed out that the pandemic had struck again in the US, with 2 lakh cases reported daily during the last 15 days, and children being infected on a large scale, the AIIMS director replied: “It’s true Delta variant cases are on the rise in the US now. There were some states in US where Covid appropriate behaviour was not being followed at all, with people having stopped wearing masks and attending parties. We should learn from these countries and avoid making mistakes that were committed there.”

On vaccination for children, Dr Guleria said, “If we keep on waiting for vaccination of all children, we may have to reopen schools only next year. Even at that time too, if a new variant emerges, questions will arise about giving booster doses to children. We can never reopen schools for a long time, if we keep on waiting for vaccines and new variants.”

He added, “Already, ZyCov-D vaccine for children of age group from 12 years and above, has been approved. Similarly, Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin trials on teenagers are already complete and analysis is going on. Once these vaccines arrive, children in the 12-plus age group can be vaccinated. Even Pfizer vaccine from the US can be given to children in India. So, reopening schools in several states of India at this moment has less risks, and more benefits. We cannot wait interminably for the schools to reopen.”

Parents of school going children in India should go carefully through what Dr Guleria has said in his interview. One, schools should be reopened only in those areas where the positivity rate is very low, Two, all schools must following Covid appropriate behaviour strictly, and Three, risks are less and benefits are more, if schools are reopened in low positive areas, of course, under supervision.

Dr Guleria is right when he says that we cannot wait interminably for the schools to reopen. Vaccines for teenagers are already being prepared, and schools can now function by following strict Covid appropriate behaviour and close supervision. Sending children to schools for their personality development is a must, but parents must maintain close supervision. Children in schools must wear masks, avoid crowds, and wash their hands frequently, while teachers and school workers must get themselves vaccinated.

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