Schools won't take full responsibility for each child during physical classes and parents don't want to risk COVID-19 infection. Hence, e-classes would continue for a while in India.
Thirty-four-year-old Upasna Panwar was among the many parents in her daughter’s school WhatsApp group expressing clear discontent with the Haryana school's reopening. Panwar’s daughter’s school reopened on November 2 for physical classes but closed again from November 20 due to rise in Coronavirus cases.
“How could I let my 12-year-old daughter go to school amidst COVID-19? Will the school take responsibility for her health? What if she took off the mask in the toilet or playground? Since I won’t be able to monitor her, I decided she should continue online classes,” said Panwar.
Panwar is among thousands of Indian parents who are still reluctant to send their children to school in the wake of COVID-19. Schools have partially opened in places like Haryana, Assam, Andhra Pradesh and Uttarakhand even as other states have decided to postpone physical classes due to rising cases.
The fear of parents is legitimate at a time when reopening of schools have led to a quick rise in cases among students in states like Andhra Pradesh and Haryana. In Haryana, close to 160 students tested positive in two weeks which has led the state government to shut schools till November 30.
What are the fears?
The common fears include mandatory wearing of masks, social distancing and whether the child washes his/her hands frequently or not.
Imagine the horror when Tamil Nadu’s Akansha Selvam discovered that her 10-year-old son Prithvi had exchanged his mask with a friend during the course of play. She immediately got him isolated, started noting down any possible symptoms and informed other people in the building as well. Thankfully Prithvi did not test positive but this is one of the biggest issues of letting a child move around unsupervised, which would be common in school premises.
“A teacher would merely ensure that the children inside a classroom wear a mask and don’t touch each other. But would he/she be responsible if the child opens the mask while playing or touches a classmate’s mask or worse exchanges it with them? After all, it only takes a single droplet of respiratory particle for someone to get COVID-19,” says Selvam.
School authorities also seem to be playing it safe. The vice principal of a large Delhi-based school says that her management wouldn't be responsible if a child contracts COVID-19.
She adds that while general cleaning and mandatory masks will be followed, it is the individual teacher or guardian for minor children who would have to take a decision on whether to attend classes or not.
"There are thousands of children in the school. Will the school board take responsibility for each child during the six-hour duration of physical classes? Young children may be stubborn and any missteps as far as not wearing masks or touching others could be deadly. Parents should either teach them the basics properly or it is advisable to continue e-lessons," she explains.
What about students giving board exams?
Parents of students giving board exams too are of the view that it is safer to study from home.
Moneycontrol reported how there is a possibility of board exams getting postponed. But even as there are concerns of finishing the academic portion on time, parents don't want to risk infection by sending children to regular school.
Pune's Sasha Sindhwani told Moneycontrol that though her daughter will be giving her Class X board exams next year, she would prefer online lessons.
"What if my child contracts COVID-19 in school and is unable to write her board exams due to health complications? It is not worth it to visit schools right now," she says.
A similar view is echoed by Bengaluru's Prathmesh Reddy whose son will be writing his Class XII exams in 2021.
Reddy is of the view that health is more important than education and that he is ready to pay higher fees to get private tuitions online than allow his son to go back to physical school.
Are parents too worried?
In schools with staff shortage, there are added fears of whether the classrooms would be sanitized at regular intervals. For Mumbai’s Firoz Naeem who is the father of 16-year-old Nida, it is a sort of paranoia whenever they have visitors.
“My wife is away with her elderly parents in Kanpur. Since I have a young daughter, I am doubly careful to avoid having guests at home. If we have a guest, they are to wear a mask during the entire duration and I also ensure that any surface that they touch is sanitized multiple times. Nida is also not allowed to touch any surface till I sanitise the whole area again. Nida may sometimes find this crazy but I only want her to be safe,” he says.
Naeem adds that he would feel tremendous anxiety if his daughter would be made to attend physical school during these times. His fears revolve around Nida taking off her mask to click ‘selfies’ with her friends and eating roadside food near her school with masks off.
Schools are also of the view that physical scrutiny of each child is impossible. Geetha Dutta who is the principal at a Rajasthan-based public school said that there are costs to conduct additional cleaning exercises as well.
"Schools would have 3-4 cleaning staff on an average. Now if parents insist that classes must be sanitised after every one to two hours, schools would also need to double the number of staff for this purpose. There are cleaning material costs too. How will schools afford that when parents want to pay a higher fee?" she added.
Dutta also claims that a few parents also sought CCTV cameras to be fixed in the camera in every class so that children could be monitored from home. She terms this demand as atrocious citing that this would cost the school upwards of Rs 7 lakh (from Classes I-XII) considering each class would need four such cameras costing Rs 5,000 each.
Parents, however, are having no second thoughts.
Kolkata’s 38-year-old Arko Ray has barred any visitor entry into their housing society after a resident tested positive. He is the society president and is of the view that limiting contact is the best way to prevent COVID-19. Even if the state government resumes physical schools, Ray is clear that his son and daughter won’t attend physical classes till the time there is a vaccine since their school has staff travelling by public transport increasing virus transmission risk.
“Healthcare infrastructure here is in shambles so why take the risk? While my children study in private schools, I am sure that the management wouldn’t take care of hygiene the way we do at home. Will classes be cleaned after every hour? Will every staff member be made to submit COVID-19 negative test report? Rules will be only on paper so atleast my children won’t go to school,” he clarifies.
Ray would only consider sending his children to school if he is able to monitor them remotely on video or if the school gives a written undertaking to take blame if children test COVID-19 positive.
Considering the legal liabilities involved, it is unlikely that school authorities would be ready to take full responsibility for the health of the child. For now, the ball lies in the parents’ court and staying away from physical school seems like a conscious call.