Sooner than later, schools and colleges will have to begin opening. In technical institutes, such as medical and dental colleges, this reopening has already begun. This is despite the fact that the COVID crisis cannot still be said to have come under control, although there is considerable normalization of this abnormal circumstance, and although the pandemic continues to take its daily toll with little signs of receding, the fear for it amongst the public seems to be waning. After almost a year of living with it, this is only to be expected. Life cannot obviously remain on suspended mode forever, and will have to move on, which is why recommending precautionary measures by state authority, advised by experts is important. So far, official response has been a mix of sense and nonsense.
The latter, probably not done out of any ill intent, but prompted by a wont for knee jerk responses, have time and again created confusion, in the process dilute public concern about the disease. It is difficult hence to understand why shops dealing with what are considered non essential businesses still cannot open on all working days, or why there is still a complete market lockdown on Sundays, or why night curfews in have been again introduced in Imphal. The virus is equally virulent on all days and does not take a holiday on Sundays. Likewise most crowding happens at shops selling essential commodities and not in others providing services such as watch repairs, welding, hardware stores etc. As a matter of fact, it is common sense that the less the number of hours for shopping, especially essential commodities, the more the rush would be during opening hours, hence the better approach ought to have been to enforce well thought out Standard Operational Protocols, SOPs, and then have shops and services open as many hours as possible. As for the new night curfew regime, it is meaningless considering there is hardly any nightlife in Imphal, especially so now that winter has set in.
No point in splitting hair over things that have gone by, although in certain areas, such as shop opening and shutting time, the government can still make changes. What however needs fresh thoughts now is to think of special SOPs for various educational institutions now poised to open. In evolving these SOPs, the stakeholders in these institutions need to be taken into confidence, for only they would know the specific needs of their unique circumstances. As for instance, in institutions such as medical colleges, where students are accommodated in hostels, the SOPs will have to reflect the modes of interactions students and staff will have to be exposed to. Their exposure to risk will also be substantially different from other educational institutions, for their class environment are the hospitals where obviously will also be COVID patients. The gradation of risk will also differ from one batch of students to another. Hence, it will be wise to restrict contact circles of the different batches students to the extent possible to among the batches only. An intern student sharing room with a student from another batch for instance would make contract tracing much more complicated. Ideally, same batch students sharing accommodation would be to the purpose in the COVID fight.
This would apply to other institutions too as and when they open, though each would have their own unique challenges. If every home had the required facilities, it would have helped in preventing students in the state from lagging too far behind students of many other states in their lessons, but the reality is far short of this. But even if all or most students were familiar with the necessary technology, and this is quite likely as the digital technology has become widely available at reasonable cost, what would fall short is sincerity and commitment of all concerned, teachers, staff and management. Private school would probably fare much better, for teachers and staff will do much more to make things work to the optimum considering their earnings are directly proportional to the work hours and quality of work they put in. In the government schools and colleges, the less said on this matter the better. Even when the COVID crisis was unheard of and therefore unimaginable, most of these were already ghost institutions with teachers and students that exist only on paper and payrolls, but seldom or never in the classes. This abject lack of commitment is another matter, but even if we were to presume commitment to work would return, the challenges in this sector would still be different. This is because most schools and colleges in the state are non-residential. This being so, the charted routes for keeping contact circles minimal would have be different. Precautions to be taken too would be considerably different. The complications in the spread pattern of the virus if these precautions are neglected should be completely understandable. As for instance, children returning from schools can bring back the infection to their homes and spread it to unsuspecting parents and other members of their families. Not only would this be dangerous if there are ailing elderlies in the family for they can possibly be put to life threatening risks, but also make contact tracing exponentially difficult.
Probably lower classes in schools can take the reopening at a slower pace, but higher classes, as well as colleges, both technical as well as general, will have to begin thinking of resuming classes, and indeed many already have begun doing so. Especially now that there is a centralising tendency in educational calendar, we cannot have our students left behind, for no competitive entrance examinations to central institutions as well as those of other much sought-after states, such as Delhi, will not wait for our students. It will be good if the individual institutions themselves are able to come out with suggestions to the government with workable strategies, but in the end, it must be the government which must come out with a comprehensive plan and matching SOPs, to reactivate our schools and colleges but after ensuring risk are minimised to the extent possible. As we have suggested earlier, these SOPs will have to vary from institution to institution, depending on the likely exposure to risk determined by the requirements of their trainings. As for instance, the risks faced in medical
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author