Although over two thousand cases of Covid-19 are reported every day in India, the third wave appears to be stabilizing across much of the country, and thus the reopening of schools must now be at the top of all governments’ agendas. The learning and education crisis, the regression of children’s basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic, and the cost of nutrition and equity have been highlighted by several surveys. According to a report by the standing parliamentary committee last year, “about 320 million children in India had not entered the classroom for more than a year.” Several states had reopened classrooms for a few months last year, but the Omicron-led wave of infections led to another outage. Children in the national capital have missed more days of school due to pollution.
As the third wave peaks in some cities, states such as Maharashtra, Karnataka and Telangana have announced school reopening dates. Since 2020, when schools closed to contain the impending first wave of coronavirus, then an unknown and unpredictably dangerous pathogen, we have come a long way. With 75% of adults vaccinated, better treatment protocols and a low hospitalization rate in the current wave, governments cannot afford to keep schools and children’s lives in limbo for much longer. But the decision to reopen must be driven by data and science. It must not be a top-down diktat, but involve teachers, district administrations and parents. Two years after the start of the pandemic, all states must have – at least – by now devised an SOP that helps school administrations decide on the reopening of schools based on the positive rate of the case or the number of hospital beds occupied or others criteria developed in agreement with medical experts. Since, at any given moment, the disease burden varies from state to state, from district to district, this must be a local decision, made transparently and without panic.
The argument for school reopening is strong, but it’s not hard to see why state governments continue to exercise caution. Previous fears that children could be carriers and infect the elderly at home have been mitigated by the high levels of vaccination among the adult population: 75% of adults have been fully vaccinated. Vaccination of children aged 15-18 has started but is showing signs of slowing down. This must accelerate, schools must be integrated into the vaccination process. Surely the choice is not a simple track and there will be risks. But as the third wave declines, as the adult population moves to full vaccination, state governments must work on a reopening plan that ensures children’s safety and access to learning. So far, the political debate in the shadow of Covid has been, as it should, dominated by the revival of the economy and the improvement of the discomfort. An urgency, a thought, a similar planning must be brought to unlock the classrooms: the future is a terrible thing to waste.