How to go back to school during a pandemic

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“School safety” has been accorded extreme importance by the Government of India with the issuing of theme-specific guidelines through the “National Disaster Management Guidelines — School Safety Policy, 2016”, a well-researched set of policy guidelines that have been published by the National Disaster Management Authority and practically covers the entire gamut of “school safety”.

The guidelines define school safety “as the creation of safe environments for children starting from their homes to their schools and back”, and conceptually earmark “the importance of safety” both inside and outside the school. While the policy guidelines rightly emphasise the need for active mainstreaming of disaster risk reduction and capacity building collaborations for all requisite key stakeholders, it must be remembered that the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) wouldn’t always remain “novel”. There will be similar public health challenges in the future as well.

Children come in to contact with other children at school and this increases chances of picking up viruses, parasites and bacteria, thereby increasing the susceptibility to catching various extremely contagious communicable diseases including chickenpox/varicella, HFMD or hand-foot-mouth-disease, hepatitis A, conjunctivitis, gastroenteritis, measles, influenza, common cold, head lice infestations, etc. Hence, from a national policy perspective of public health disaster mitigation in the future, clear emphasis and reference should be drawn specifically for school-going children with respect to school safety and child health while focusing on child-centric approaches during an epidemic/pandemic through requisite augmentations in the National Policy on Education (2020), National Disaster Management Act (2005), National Policy on Disaster Management (2009) and the Right to Education Act (2009 and 2019).

Returning to school after a prolonged community lockdown and the absence from school premises can be exciting as well as taxing for many children. The mixed feeling resulting from not being allowed to interact freely even after entering the school premises may lead to anger, frustration and anxiety, which may further lead to non-compliance of protocols that have been laid out in schools. It is important for the school to recognise and convey to the children that (mis)behaviour is often rooted in emotions and this simple practice could help both parents and children make this connection between emotions and behaviour. This would help a child in understanding and changing their behaviour.

The emotional and psycho-social well being of school children should be accorded a priority in all schools, particularly now, in the context of pandemics like COVID-19. Prolonged community lockdowns and school closures have already had profound adverse consequences on a child’s mental and emotional well being. Another fairly important communiqué should address the “importance of festivities and how to celebrate without being lax on public health compliances”. While this guiding principle is more applicable to adults, school-going children and adolescents need to appreciate the reality of the situation in a pandemic and understand what’s possible/doable with slight tweaking of one’s expectations during festivals.Must Read Opinions

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From a physical infrastructure perspective, something as basic as the availability of a quarantine facility on school premises has been missed out in a majority of the communications being exchanged by stakeholder organisations. A quarantining facility within a school could make a major disruption in the epidemiological triad model of infectious disease causation, since environmental factors alone facilitate both emergence and spread of infectious (communicable) diseases, including, human coronaviruses.

Similarly, ventilation in school buildings may sound more like an easily identifiable prerequisite but somehow isn’t accorded the focus that it ought to receive. This single factor could mitigate the spread of communicable diseases including COVID-19. The best way to ensure ventilation is to keep all windows and doors open while classrooms are in session, irrespective of the status of air conditioners/fans. Surely a tad inconvenient in harsh climates but this seemingly simple process would avoid recirculation of air, another important factor in the spread of a contagion.

According to the WHO, Unicef and IFRC-mandated document on ‘Key Messages & Actions for Covid-19 – Prevention & Control in Schools’, there should be a clear directive to all students, school administrators, teachers and other staff members not to attend school in case anyone is sick. The term “sick” may be explicitly extrapolated as “suffering from the common cold, cough, fever, headache & for any kind of body pain”. Then there are the often communicated commitments vis-à-vis, the discontinuation of morning assemblies, compulsory “masking”, no-entry for outside vendors in schools, information dissemination in local languages, regular reassessments on the feasibility of “social distancing” in schools with the option to go back online, etc.

No straight-jacketed approach can work for a large country like India and the district administration needs to revise and adapt as per rural, sub-urban or urban school settings, keeping in mind the overall spread of the virus in the area. Similarly, school policies should also be adjusted to align with new guidelines. Ideally, education institution administrators should refine approaches when specific policies are not working.

Finally, the spread of highly infectious diseases like COVID-19 is determined by the way agent, host and environmental factors interact and vaccinations alone do not offer active immunisation to populations. Institutions like schools will remain highly susceptible to further transmission. Governments globally need to consider trade-offs between restraining other community in-door spaces like bars, gyms, restaurants or even large office complexes.


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