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Professor Reetika Khera of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi has argued for the immediate but careful reopening of primary schools in India.
She says while privileged and well-off families can have access to facilities that enable their children to benefit from online education, this is nothing but a cruel joke for the majority of the country without access to internet, computers and smartphones. Consequently, she adds, 70% of families are anxious for primary schools to open so their children can get an education which will, hopefully, give them a decent start in life.
In a recent Joint Statement UNESCO and UNICEF said “schools should be the last to close and first to reopen” adding that its bizarre and inexplicable that restaurants, bars, spas and cinemas have opened but not schools.
In a 29-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Khera said the opening of primary schools is particularly necessary for young children. These are young people at the formative stage of their life and they have already lost many of the learning skills acquired before schools shut down. In addition to the academic loss they have suffered, they are also losing out on socialising with their young age group whilst many children, who depend upon mid-day meals, have been deprived of essential nutrition. The impact on children of schools being closed for up to 17 months is not just academic. It has also affected their physical and mental well-being.
Khera said it was worse than a joke to believe that online education can take the place of proper physical functioning schools. She said only 6% of rural and 25% of urban households have computers whilst only 17% of rural areas and 42% of urban areas have internet facilities. The vast majority of families do not have smartphones and even where there is one it’s shared and usually with the father of the family. Children have very little access to it.
Khera said a whole generation of children have lost 17 months of schooling and it’s hard to see how this can ever be made up. In all likelihood this is a setback that will be hard to reverse. Furthermore, she added, girls have suffered more than boys and the poor far more than the rich. The longer schools remains closed these inequalities will grow and get worse.
Khera said primary schools must open first and as soon as possible. But adds this should be in a carefully graded and calibrated way. Local authorities can decide where schools will open depending upon the positivity rate of the area. Classes can be staggered in terms of timing and, furthermore, attendance can be 50% on each day rather than a 100%. Side by side parents who have online facilities and prefer their children study in that way can be permitted to do so. A hybrid combination of timing, attendance and mode of education should reduce the risk of infection substantially.
Khera said schools should be considered essential services. She said any future decision to close schools because of lockdowns should only be taken on the basis of criteria such as hospital OPDs. If, for example, AIIMS shuts its OPD then that could be grounds for schools to also shut. But schools must be recognised as essential services of equal importance to hospital OPDs.
Prof. Khera said teachers and other adults working in schools should be considered frontline workers and given priority vaccination.
Watch the full interview here.