Since it is almost certain we have to learn to live with COVID-19 at least for some time to come, indefinite closure of schools, colleges and universities will no longer be a wise policy. If we are to go by indications of what is happening elsewhere, countries which are hit hard with many deaths and tens of thousands infected with COVID-19 have already opened schools.
In Eastern Europe, Norway with 8,896 COVID-19 confirmed cases, 250 deaths and 8,138 recovered patients, was the first to open Kindergarten schools amidst the COVID-19 lockdown. Kindergartens in the Scandinavian country reopened on April 20 after the closure from March 12, primary schools from first to fourth grade reopened on April 27 and middle schools and high schools reopened on May 11, though students had to maintain distancing under social distancing measures.
Interestingly Norway’s schools, which were among the first to reopen in Europe after strict lockdown measures were introduced across the country in March, have returned to full normal classes since June 2. The other Nordic countries, Sweden, Finland and Denmark have also reopened schools in recent weeks.
In the case of South Korea, despite the spike in transmissions with 11,590 COVID-19 cases and 273 deaths the country has started a phase wise reopening of schools, which began with high-school seniors on May 20. Again 519 schools so far have been forced to go back to remote learning after 49 new cases of COVID-19 were reported. Nearly 1.8 million children – high school freshmen, middle-school juniors and third and fourth-grade elementary kids have returned to schools.
It may be mentioned that Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun has said that the country kept schools open even during the 1950-53 Korean War. He further said, “I believe that we cannot fail the dreams and future of our children because of the current difficulties.” Some of the countries which have reopened schools are Britain, Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa, China, Taiwan, Japan and New Zealand.
In India too, even the worst affected state of Maharashtra has decided to reopen schools for classes 9 to 12 along with junior colleges in the non-red zone areas of the state from July 1. Classes from 6 to 8 will reopen in August. Sikkim and Chhattisgarh have also decided to reopen schools in August while Haryana has decided to reopen from July 27.
Meanwhile, for Manipur too, a joint consultative meeting of heads of the educational institutes, parents, and teaching community and students organisations has expressed their strong desire for reopening of both schools and colleges, which have been closed since March 12 to contain the spread of COVID-19 pandemic.
The Joint Consultative Meeting on Education was held on June 30 at City Convention, Palace Compound in Imphal under the initiative and chairmanship of the Education Minister, Dr Thokchom Radheshyam. The consultative meeting was essentially organised jointly by the Department of Education (Schools) and Higher and Technical Education, Government of Manipur and held to discuss various issues facing the schools and colleges of Manipur during the lockdown over the pandemic.
In the meeting, many parents and members of the teaching community felt that reopening of schools and colleges was the best option in these “uncertain and unprecedented times” to save the students; otherwise it would extract a huge price in terms of psychological and learning attitude, etc. from our future generations in the years to come. Valuable suggestions and observations regarding the resumption of the normal academic curriculum in schools and colleges were gathered from the consultative meeting.
Stating that “we’re right in the middle of a war, but with an unknown enemy,” Education Minister Dr Radheshyam stressed upon the role of parents, guardians and teachers to provide better quality education to the students in these unprecedented times of COVID-19 pandemic. The Minister also appealed to all the stakeholders to provide suggestions and solutions especially on issues of thousands of students who study outside the state and have now returned to the state, and who may opt to stay back; whether there would be shifts in the classes both in higher and lower schools; whether the current syllabi would be reduced to adjust the academic calendar, and whether a new Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) should apply to school children.
In view of the plight of the students in the state amidst the COVID-19 lockdown, experts in Manipur are looking for ways to address the issue. They have expressed concern over the situation faced by the students in the state amidst the prolonged break in the teaching-learning process due to the lockdown.
While some suggested early resumption of classes as immediate need, others pointed out the long-term needs to address infrastructural gaps, “loopholes” and the “abnormal” situation in the state education sector which are evident even during normal times.
As several stakeholders in the state expressed the need for resumption of teaching-learning process at the earliest in shifts or in a staggered manner, Head of Department of Psychiatry of Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS), Dr RK Lenin cautioned, “We need physical as well as psychological preparedness before reopening the schools and colleges so that the students can better adapt to the new environment of their institutions.” Dr. RK Lenin further pointed out that students, especially school-going children, are facing various behavioural problems and mental challenges due to closure of schools during the lockdown.
All educational institutions in Manipur have been closed since the second week of March and over a 100 of them are being utilised as quarantine centres. In view of this, many participants reiterated the need for sanitising and disinfecting of the institutes before resumption of classes, and strict monitoring to prevent spread of COVID-19 among the students, teachers and workers.
Meanwhile, Professor Amar Yumnam of Economics Department and also Head of Department of South-East Asian Studies of Manipur University called for ensuring infrastructural gaps are addressed in the long run instead of focusing only on immediate needs. Pointing out the huge infrastructural gaps between hills and valley, he urged the government to make sure that sense of deprivation is not deepened with the COVID-19 crisis or similar other crises.
Social anthropologist Professor M C Arun who is also Head of Department of Psychology and Director of Centre for Myanmar Studies of Manipur University was optimistic about the reopening schools and higher educational institutions soon. “Schools, colleges and universities can be opened with limited educational activities from July 10 after taking about one week for preparation to address the psychological stress being faced by the students due to COVID-19 lockdown,” Prof. Arun added.
However, the joint consultative meeting was not conclusive about its recommendations or resolutions.
About the probable timeline for reopening of the educational institutions, the Education Minister indicated that the schools might be reopened after due consideration in terms of the suggestions and recommendations of the joint consultative meeting – most probably by the time there are no more new returnees coming into the state.
Since all the COVID-19 positive cases found in Manipur are amongst the returnees from outside and there is no community transmission of the coronavirus except with limited lateral transmission to COVID-19 frontline warriors, there is no need to panic about the spread of COVID-19 when schools are reopened as long as the children, students, teachers, non-teaching staff and the transporters are kept away from the quarantinees, and sanitisation and disinfection are properly done besides wearing face masks, maintaining physical distance and hand washing properly and frequently.
Therefore, schools should now be reopened while fighting the COVID-19 pandemic as many countries and states in India have done by taking preventive measures and close monitoring.
Senior Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics