To Open or to Keep Closed: The Dilemmas and Debates Around Reopening Schools Amid the Pandemic

The question of whether schools should be reopened amid the pandemic is troubling the entire educational community, the article explores the various sides of the debate.

Educational institutions such as schools, colleges, universities and etc have been shut down in India since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This closure of education institutions has raised various debates and concerns regarding the sudden popularity of online education’ around which much discussion has taken place. However, now that the pandemic is still not under control and there are discussions happening around opening up schools and colleges, the debate has taken a different turn. This article is a reflection on the debates echoing in academic circuits around this issue.

Introduction

The closure of education institutions has shaken the normal, taken for granted school education system. Millions of students witnessed postponing and rescheduling of their board exams or final exams, incomplete syllabus and semester, postponing of events, tournaments etc. The major concern raised by multiple stakeholders such as parents, teachers, children, policymakers in this pandemic situation is about the ‘learning crisis’ which is seen to be intimately linked to the ritual of exams and completion of syllabus. However, now that the pandemic is still not under control and there are deliberations happening around opening up schools and colleges, the debate has taken a different direction. 

After two and half months, on 30th May 2020, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued guidelines for uplifting some restrictions. The document stated that in the IInd phase “schools, colleges, training/ coaching institutions etc. will open after the consultation with state and UTs. State government and UTs may hold consultations with parents and other stakeholders. Based on the feedback a decision on reopening these institutions will be taken in the month of July” (MHA guidelines, 2020). 

Against such an idea of reopening of schools by the government, a parent’s association has started an online petition titled ‘No school until zero Covid cases in the state or until vaccines are out’. The petition says, “the decision to open schools by the government is like playing with fire and secondly, if schools claim that they are doing a good job via virtual learning then why not continue it for the rest of the academic year” (change.org, 2020). This petition clearly sends this message that parents are strongly against the idea of reopening of schools and in favour of online learning. 

Online mode of teaching-learning has emerged as the ultimate solution because, on one hand, it claims continuity in teaching-learning and, on the other hand, it also helped in maintaining the protocol of physical distancing in this pandemic time. 

However, online education has its own challenges such as access, equity, quality, concerns related to planning and organising and most importantly its impact on the teaching learning process, teacher-student relationships, assumption about knowledge and school education. So in the context of these contrary concerns of reopening of schools and school closure, rather than favouring one over the other, it will be useful to compare them to understand the key complexities and issues involved in their operation amidst the pandemic.

Schools should be reopened

Now, in case schools get reopened, the following three kinds of issues arise.

Even if schools get reopened with all preventive measures such as frequent use of hand wash and sanitisers, compulsory mask, protocol of social and physical distancing, etc. Along with new rules to conduct school’s functions such as reduction in syllabus, alternative days of classroom teaching, reduction in pupil teacher ratio etc, the first key concern that emerges is what kind of schools can afford such preventive measures while reopening? For example, schools which have small buildings and limited infrastructure such as government schools and most importantly the case of low-cost private schools (which are multiplying at a fast pace in India), how can they and all other kinds of schools guarantee child safety with limited resources? It implies that only some schools which have huge infrastructure, technical know-how, financial resources can afford to practice such preventive measures. 

Secondly, group activities such as working together on classroom projects, sharing of meals, playing together, group participation in events and sharing of transport etc is central to school life However due to the necessity of following the protocols of social and physical distancing, school activities will be designed to prevent such group activities which are core to school experiences and play an important role in social, moral, intellectual development of children.

Third, reopening of schools will be beneficial for children of underprivileged sections of society because apart from teaching and learning, government schools and anganwadis play an important social responsibility by providing mid-day meals and providing day care to children respectively. Now the question is due to the closing of schools, what will happen to children of these institutions? Who will take care of these children when their parents will go for work in the post lock down phase? According to The Economic times (2020) “When schools and colleges move online, students with lesser digital access get further disadvantaged, and those without any digital access are at risk of dropping out altogether”. The case of migrant’s worker children is even worse, Tiwari (2020) “pointed out that various research shows that most migrant children fall under the ‘out of school’ category”. Thus, this situation shows us that for some sections of society the question of reopening and closure of school is not even useful.

Schools should remain closed

In case schools continue to remain closed, as advocated by some sections of society due to their concern of preventing the life of their children from the life threatening COVID-19 infection, the following three kinds of issues arise.

Concerns related to practice of online education by private schools

  1. At present there are no norms or guidelines or policy in India on how to design and organise online education programmes for school children. Due to this private schools have their own version of online education as per their own understanding, convenience and availability of resources. Neither teachers nor parents and students are aware or adequately trained or prepared about using online education as a means of teaching-learning. Therefore, in most of the cases (specially low-cost private schools) school teaching has reduced to WhatsApp chatting for submitting homework, giving feedback and exchanging learning videos etc. And in the context of children belonging to remote areas of rural India where there is no access to internet and availability of digital devices, the idea of online education is a failure. However, recently MHRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal said on twitter “Students held up in remote parts of the country will get access to education content using ‘swayam prabha’ and radio”.This kind of expansion of online education in remote areas raises important concern on equality of opportunity for accessing digital devices for children of these areas and quality of education imparted through online mode.
  2. Apart from children learning, school closure has an impact on parents, teachers and school managements as well. For example, in case of private schools which are dependent on school fees of their children to pay teachers’ salaries. How will they pay teachers to conduct online classes, if schools remain closed? Second, for parents, regulation of fees in pandemic times is another major worry. It is also a major reason for conflict between them and school management as online education doesn’t provide the same privileges to student’s which education in school premises provide. Thus, the question is how much school should charge parents for providing online education? How should regulation of fees of private schools be done?
  3. The second major concern is that too much emphasis on online education may have a major impact on the school education system in the longer run or in future. Thus, the key future concern is danger of blurring the line between using online education as a pedagogic tool vs using online education as a dominant aspect of school education. If that happens, then it may create opportunities for outsiders such as private players like education companies (Byjus, Khan Academy etc) to take virtual classes, designing text book content etc for schools. Second, it will create scope for the Global Education Industry (GEI) to enter in the school process. As an impact of too much digitalisation of education it may further enhance the cost of education and harm teachers’ agencies as decision makers, lesson planners as well as student agency. 

Thus, this question of reopening the schools shows two unparalleled understandings of schooling where for one section of society schools are just institutions of learning and teaching and means of upward mobility. Whereas for the other and especially the lower sections of the society, it is also a means of survival as a helping hand. Thus, this scenario of school divide, digital divide shows how wider inequality exist in Indian society. In this context this question of whether to reopen schools or not may impact children of different sections of society in unequal manners. Therefore, a critical assessment of the ground level situation is required by the state to fulfil its welfare function and act as a guardian to protect the rights of children to access educational opportunities.

Radhika Mittal is pursuing her PhD from Ambedkar University, Delhi.

 

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