Life seems to be otherwise going normal but educational institutions still face restrictions
States are still dilly dallying on opening educational institutions in the country. Non-vaccination of students or vaccine unavailability for children are the given reasons. Institutions are, therefore, seen as “super spreaders”. And there is fear of the third wave of COVID-19. Yet, life seems to be otherwise normal all around us. Political parties are holding rallies, farmers are organizing protests, election commission is holding elections, market places and malls are open, recreational activities are going on full-swing. There is no restriction on domestic air and surface travel. Then why restrictions only for students and educational institutions? Across the world, India is among five countries where educational institutions have remained closed for long. Millions of students are deprived of active learning at pre-school level and break in education for older students. States are registering a high dropout of students from the school system, especially girl students. They may never get an opportunity to go back to school again. The gains made through enrollment of through Right to Education may be lost. A group of 56 renowned academicians, doctors including epidemiologists and other experts have urged state chief ministersto reopen schools and colleges. The signatories include Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, epidemiologist and public health expert, Professor Suneela Garg of the Lancet Covid-19 Commission, Dr Naveen Thacker of the International Paediatric Association, and Shaneen Mistri, Teach For India CEO Shaheen Mistri. The letter says, “There is an urgent need to bring children back to school. Since younger children are least at risk, we urge you to permit primary schools to open first, in line with Indian Council of medical Research (ICMR) recommendations, and then higher classes. Vaccination is not a prerequisite for reopening schools.”
The purpose of vaccination is to prevent severe illness and death, and children are at relatively low risk of severe or fatal COVID-19. It is well known that the lack of education for students, particularly girls, affects the health and livelihood of next generation. These are extreme costs. Government and task forces must strike a balance of risksand such balance is overwhelmingly in favour of opening schools. NK Arora, senior member of the National COVID-19 task force said in a recent interview, “There are 44 crore children in India, out of which 12 crore are in the 12-17 age group…Based on Indian and global data, the risk of severe disease and death are rare in children. However, children can spread infection. Adults have almost 15 times higher risk of death and severe disease compared with children below 18 years. So, if adults around them at home or at school are vaccinated, it will form a protective ring around them. There will be limited virus and disease transmission in that condition. I strongly feel that parents should send their kids to school without waiting for Covid-19 vaccine for two reasons; one, their risk of developing a severe disease is rare; second going to school is important for their cognitive, physical and mental development.” The Ministry of Home Affairs says the pandemic situation is stable. Experts justify arguing that if earlier prediction of India witnessing a rise of four-five lakh cases daily in a third wave was true, it would have happened by now. But it has not happened. On the contrary, our big cities are witnessing normal life with no substantial increase in cases, the reason being that on an average, over 67 per cent of our population have antibodies against the virus and the pace of vaccination is increasing every passing day. That is a good enough reason to consider reopening schools even if in a phased manner.
(The writer is a senior journalist and Chairman, Panwar Group of Institutions, Solan, Himachal Pradesh. The views expressed are personal.)