The National Coalition on the Education Emergency, a conglomeration of networks that work on the Right to Education, has opposed the closing of schools, saying it would “spell a disaster for children”.

“Complete lockdown has severely affected our economy and jobs earlier,” the group said in a statement. “School lockdown will similarly seriously harm our children, and that too, over the long term.”

The group said that schools need to be kept open “to reduce this serious harm” and resume learning. “Schools must be the last to close and the first to open,” it added.

The statement is endorsed by 18 eminent citizens, including All India Primary Teachers Federation President Rampal Singh, IT for Change Director Gurumurthy Kasinath and Child Rights Specialist Alka Singh, among others.

Schools were closed in March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic triggered an abrupt countrywide lockdown. Some states had resumed in-person classes after the second wave of the pandemic abated in August 2021, but many are now deciding to again to shut educational institutes amid the spread of the Omicron variant.

Delhi, Mumbai, Punjab, West Bengal, Goa and Haryana are among those that have ordered schools to be shut. While all these states besides Delhi passed the order in view of the rising Omicron cases, the schools in Delhi were shut down due to high pollution levels.

In a statement, the National Coalition on the Education Emergency noted that Delhi, Goa and Haryana governments have shut schools and Karnataka has recommended closing them when the test positivity rate crosses the 2%-mark.

The statement said that as schools had remained mostly closed since March 2020 it has had “devastating consequences” for the nutrition, health and education of many children. It said that labour, early marriages and domestic violence against children have also increased. The statement said some countries had kept schools open throughout the pandemic.

“It is evident that the absence of structured learning opportunities has caused severe academic regression, young children have forgotten habits of learning; basic reading and numeracy skills have been affected, and we are seeing a huge dropout as a result,” it said.

It noted that virtual learning has not been effective for most children. “It will continue to be a meaningless option.”

The statement said that evidence from Karnataka as well as that from around the world show that children are least vulnerable to the virus, the fatalities negligible and in-school transmission of the infection is lower as compared to other places.

“South Africa and Europe confirms that there is no indication that the third wave is targeting children, which the head of Indian Council of Medical Research has also emphasised earlier,” it said.

The group pointed out that political leaders have repeatedly said that they would follow scientific principles when considering imposing lockdowns as well as its cost. It said that many are considering the economic costs of lockdown but the educational costs of “condemning entire generations of children to a life time of illiteracy and ignorance is being taken lightly and even callously”.

It also said that the number of students in rural areas are less than 50 and many of the pupils already play with each other outside their homes.

The group suggested using a graded response to the coronavirus waves. It said that in such cases, schools in urban areas can be asked to operate at 50% capacity while following Covid-19 norms when the test positivity rate crosses 5%. If the test positivity rate crosses 10%, medium-sized schools can be asked to function with staggered timings.

“Schools which are small should not be closed,” the statement said. “Evidence suggests that students are safer in schools than in the community.”

It also advised providing hot cooked meals in all schools.

The group said that district and local administration should decide on closing schools so that if the test positivity rate is high in one area, schools in other places need not be shut.

“Only if there are large number of severe cases affecting children should widespread school closure be considered,” the group suggested. “Asymptomatic cases of children should not be a factor for considering school closure.”

The group also proposed that in-person attendance should be encouraged but not made compulsory, enabling parents who do not want their children to go to school be forced to do so.

“Schools must take adequate precautions, providing water and soap to ensure hygiene, with
masks and reasonable physical distancing,” it added. “Classes should be conducted in the open wherever possible, or in well ventilated rooms.”

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Effects of school closure on children

Educators and child rights activists say that school closures are having catastrophic consequences for India’s children.

For one, most children haven’t had any exposure to formal learning for more than a year. Only one in four children in India has access to the digital devices and internet connectivity required to transition to online education, according to a United Nations Children’s Fund report released in March 2021.

Researchers at Azim Premji University surveyed 16,067 children from Classes 2 to 6 in 1,137 government schools across five states in January 2021. They found on average 92% of students had lost at least one specific language ability and 82% had lost at least one specific mathematical ability compared to previous years.

Between May and June 2020, Oxfam India surveyed close to 1,200 parents and 500 teachers across Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh. Eighty per cent of the parents said their children had not received any education during the lockdown. Four of five students had not received their textbooks for the academic year 2020-’21. More than one-third of the children had not received midday meals despite government orders.

Another survey conducted in August in 15 states and Union Territories had shown that 97% of parents of underprivileged children in rural India want schools to reopen as soon as possible.

One of the primary causes of this, the report said, was that many households had no access to smartphones. “Even among households with a smartphone, the proportion of children who are studying online regularly is just 31% in urban areas and 15% in rural areas,” the report had added.