With the novel coronavirus infecting more than 1.2 lakh people in 110 countries around the world and at least 73 people in India, schools and colleges across the country are making special efforts to prevent the spread of the disease.

The virus, officially known as Covid-19, has killed more than 4,700 people globally since January and has been declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. In India, the Union Health Ministry has confirmed cases from Kerala, Delhi, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Punjab and Tamil Nadu.

In response to the growing crisis, the Kerala and Delhi governments have announced the closure of all educational institutions and cinema halls for the rest of March. In other cities in India, schools and colleges are either cancelling classes or extending holidays, providing sanitisers in classrooms or making masks mandatory.

Haryana’s Ashoka University, for instance, has decided to suspend on-campus classes for undergraduate students till the end of March. In a letter to all students, the private university’s vice-chancellor announced that the mid-term break, which was supposed to end on March 16, has now been extended up to March 30 so that the risk of spreading or contracting infections while travelling could be mitigated.

Although no cases of coronavirus have so far been detected in Chhattisgarh, the Hidayatullah National Law University in Raipur has suspended classes till March 18 and asked all students living on campus to vacate their hostels by Thursday evening. The university took this decision after several students who returned from their homes after the Holi break were found to have cold, cough and fever. They are now being isolated and tested.

What schools are doing

Panic over the spread of coronavirus has pushed several schools to suspend classes. In Bangalore district, all pre-primary and primary schools have been closed as a precaution.

“We have indefinitely closed the school for everyone up to Class 5, and we are looking at online teaching methods and strategies meanwhile,” said a teacher from the Bangalore school who did not want to be identified. “For secondary school students, we are providing sanitisers and making hand-washing compulsory, particularly before and after break time.”

In Jaipur, SRN International School has chosen to extend the regular two-day Holi holiday for the whole week. “We have asked students to prepare for their exams at home itself,” said Pamela Sharma, the vice-principal of the school. Before the Holi break, the school had already stopped conducting morning assembly sessions and had asked students to bring sanitisers and masks to school. “For those who are not able to bring their own masks, we are providing them.”

Similarly, on Thursday, several schools in Mumbai announced temporary suspension of classes to protect students. Nahar International School, for instance, has announced the closure of the campus from March 13 to at least March 23, during which the school plans to conduct online lessons for children. Cathedral and John Connon School announced a “state of lockdown” in the school up to March 31, for all students except those appearing for the Class 10 and 12 board examinations.

Most other schools in India are continuing to hold regular classes and exams, and have taken note of basic safety guidelines issued by Unicef, the World Health Organisation and the Indian health ministry for protecting students from coronavirus.

Students in Chandigarh pray for Coronavirus victims. Credit: Reuters

“We are training children to wash their hands more often and we have placed sanitisers in every classroom,” said Lina Ashar, founder of the Billabong International schools in Mumbai. “We are not asking students to wear masks to school because the official guidelines say that for everyone to wear masks is not advisable.”Other schools are making sure that sick children stay at home. “If any child has a cold or a cough, they are not allowed to attend school,” said an official from Pune’s Vibgyor High School.

A different demographic

Even though all schools are attempting to enforce hygiene, those catering to students from marginal economic classes believe it is harder for them. At Mumbai’s Sheth MA High School, for instance, most students come from a local slum, where they are constantly exposed to open gutters, garbage and general squalor.

“We do teach children about washing hands and staying clean, but many of them don’t even have handkerchiefs,” said Sherly Paul, the principal of the school. “We teach them about recognising symptoms like cold, cough and breathlessness, but they are used to these conditions and just bear it.”

Paul would have liked to provide sanitisers in classrooms and hot water in the school bathrooms, but faces a major hurdle. “Ours is a government aided school, so we cannot spend any money without government approvals, which take a long time to come,” said Paul, who believes that the city’s municipal corporation needs to play a bigger role in disease prevention when it comes to vulnerable populations like her students. “They need to take care of cleanliness in these areas and raise awareness about hygiene at the local level, through primary health centres.”