Is Social Distancing Feasible for a Majority of Schools in India?

Many of India's schools and classrooms may find it difficult to implement safety precautions to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Schools and colleges have been closed for close to two months now in view of the outbreak of the coronavirus. Although there have been some directives from UGC concerning when colleges will be opened again, no such announcements have been made for schools so far.

Given the health risk for a large number of children, it is indeed difficult for governments to predict when schools will be reopened.

However, last week, during an interaction with teachers, Union human resource development minister Ramesh Pokhriyal said that the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) was preparing guidelines and safety precautions for the reopening of schools.

The minister also suggested that the guidelines would cover measures like spaced out sitting arrangements, classes in shifts with a fewer number of students and online weekend classes etc. to maintain social distancing norms in classrooms.

However, the larger question remains whether schools are equipped to implement some of the social distancing norms discussed by the HRD minister. This needs to be informed after taking into consideration a few realities of our school education system.

Basic infrastructure needs

Maintaining social distancing norms requires some essential school infrastructures to be in place. As per the DISE statistics, 53,533 schools in India are single classroom schools. In 19% of schools, the student classroom ratio (STR) is 35 and above and in 8.3% of schools, i.e., around 1.3 lakh schools, more than 50 students sit in one classroom.

In many schools, different classes are combined together to run the academic affairs, while the ideal STR should not be more than 35:1. How can one expect these schools to maintain social distancing in classrooms?

Also read: What a Survey of Children in Bihar Revealed About Online Schooling

After the reopening of schools, children will spend, on an average, five hours in a school. Thus, along with ensuring social distancing norms, it would also be necessary for schools to safeguard children’s hygiene which requires facilities like drinking water, sanitation, handwashing etc. to be operational in schools.

Frequent washing of hands with soap is a key precautionary measure which has been recommended since the very beginning of the pandemic. However, 45% of schools in India do not have any hand washing facilities. After the launch of the Swachh Vidyalaya Abhiyan, the coverage of separate toilets for girls and boys reached 93% and 87% of schools now have functional drinking water facilities. But where overall WASH facilities i.e, drinking water, functional toilets and hand wash facilities are considered, only 52% of schools qualify.

Schools are not only about students

Implementing guidelines like classes with not more than 30% of students in one day and classes in different shifts need additional teaching time. This requires either overtime by the existing teachers or new recruitments.

Unfortunately, the status of teacher recruitment in India is not very encouraging. At the elementary level, 17.6% posts for government teachers are vacant and the vacancy is 15.7% at the secondary level. Around 1,08,017 schools in India are single-teacher schools. In about 17% of schools, a teacher has to manage more than 40 children. It is difficult to imagine how understaffed teaching faculties will cope with the reopening of schools with social distancing norms.

The hygiene of teachers is also crucial not only for themselves, but also for their students, since after parents, children spend most of their time with their teachers. Thus, being in good health is a necessity for all teachers and especially for the teachers who are senior in age.

Schoolgirls sit inside their classroom before collecting their free mid-day meals, being distributed by a government-run primary school, in New Delhi May 8, 2013. India may soon pass a new law to give millions more people cheap food, fulfilling an election promise of the ruling Congress party that could cost about $23 billion a year and take a third of annual grain production. The National Food Security Bill, which aims to feed 70 percent of the population, could widen India's already swollen budget deficit next year, increasing the risk to its coveted investment-grade status.

Representative image of a government school in Delhi. Photo: Reuters/Mansi Thapliyal

At present, around six lakh teachers who are older than 55 years are serving the school education system and are more vulnerable to the threat posed by COVID-19. There are not enough options for the teachers to maintain social distancing in staff rooms as well. For most schools, there is single staff room for all teaching and non-teaching faculty and in 55% of schools, along with a staff room, there is an additional room for the principal of the institution.

Like students, teachers need to have adequate access to toilets with running water too. They would arguably need to spend even longer hours in schools. Unfortunately, there is no data on the availability of separate toilets for teachers in schools in the public domain. A study by WaterAid revealed that in states like Telangana, Odisha, Karnataka, only 28% of schools had separate toilets for teachers.

Also read: Lockdown Schooling Is No Substitute for Education

Training the teaching faculty

After the reopening of schools, teachers will not only play the role of educators but will also be expected to mentor and counsel students to ensure their emotional well-being. This would require appropriate training. However, not only do 19% of teachers in schools not have any professional qualification, even amongst the trained teachers, few are trained when it comes to providing psycho-social support and mental health support to students.

Many teachers are not even aware of basic sanitation and hygiene practices to be followed in schools. A survey in 453 schools by WaterAid revealed that only 43.5% of schools have teachers trained on topics related to sanitation and hygiene.

Non-teaching staff

The reopening of schools will also require substantial time from the non-teaching support staffs, to settle pending administrative and financial commitments owing to the lockdown period. But the current situation is equally pitiful when it comes to the non-teaching staff. Currently, there are 8.1 lakh non-teaching staff members in the school education system which equals one non-teaching staff member for 312 students.

Adding up the indicators

Taking stock of the school education sector before its reopening has revealed the prevailing systemic gaps. There is a shortage everywhere in the system starting from the basic school infrastructure to teaching and non-teaching staff members. The pandemic has highlighted the need for teachers’ training on how to support children in case of a health emergency. It has also emphasised the need for training both students and teachers on sanitation and hygiene in schools. All these gaps indicate that a majority of the schools are not even equipped to implement basic measures of social distancing.

Under such dire circumstances, it is understandable if the steps undertaken by the government cannot be implemented everywhere. But the need for social distancing in schools can occur any time in the future. COVID-19 has created an opportunity for governments to learn valuable policy lessons to deal with such situations.

Also read: Lockdown Is Disrupting a Generation’s Education. What Can Be Done?

Need to ramp up education investment

The preparedness for reopening of schools brings forth the urgency of substantial investment in school education. It has reaffirmed the notion that implementing social distancing norms in school requires more resources  – resources for infrastructure, for filling vacant posts of teachers, for training teachers and for recruitment of non-teaching staff.

Currently, India spends around 2.8% of its GDP on school education, one of the lowest among BRICS countries. For the last six years, the MHRD allocation for school education has decreased from 0.42% of the GDP in 2014-15 to 0.26% of the GDP in 2020-21.

According to the Parliamentary Standing Committee report, this year, against a proposed budget of Rs 82,570 crore, the Department of School Education and Literacy, has been allocated Rs 59,845 crore, a 27.5% shortfall from the proposed budget.

At the schematic level, Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (SMSA), the key programme recently launched for providing holistic school education from pre-school to senior secondary level, remained under-funded from its very inception. In 2020-21 (BE), against a projected demand of Rs 45,934 crore, the scheme has been allocated Rs 38,750 crore.

Chronic under-allocation in school education has made the system fragile. A mere reprioritisation of the existing quantum of budgets for school education would certainly not help. The sector demands additional resources across the various areas of provisioning in a manner that addresses the requirements more comprehensively.

Protiva Kundu works with the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), New Delhi.