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Educators and public health experts say that the problem must be addressed as a social issue and not merely a public health challenge.

With COVID-19 cases rising again in the country, some of the more alarming clusters have been detected in residential campuses of schools and colleges. Last week, around 100 students and staff members of  Andhra University (AU) Engineering College in Visakhapatnam tested positive for coronavirus. Before that, multiple student clusters emerged in residential schools in different parts of Telangana. And in Karnataka’s Manipal Institute of Technology (MIT) campus, since mid-March, at least 900 people were found to have COVID-19, and the campus has been declared a containment zone.

Responses to these clusters have been varied. The Telangana government decided to temporarily close all educational institutions except for medical colleges, and have switched back to online classes. The Andhra Pradesh government has declared that it has no plans to shut schools and colleges as online classes do not serve all students. With this in mind, the state Education Minister Adimulapu Suresh had said that COVID-19 guidelines are to be strictly followed and students must be randomly tested, and only those educational institutions situated in COVID-19 containment zones were to be closed. The Karnataka government had earlier said that there would be no change in offline classes and examinations scheduled as per universities’ timetables. However, physical classes have now been suspended except for classes 10, 11 and 12.

Even as the long-term impact the pandemic will have on learning at the school and college levels is yet to be fully understood, according to public health experts and education activists the problem must be viewed not just as a public health challenge but a social issue as well.

Soon after the Telangana government announced its decision to shut down colleges, hundreds of students of Osmania University (OU) in Hyderabad and Kakatiya University (KU) in Warangal staged flash protests, demanding that the decision be revoked. The students said that those from marginalised communities would be most affected by the closing down of campus hostels as many of them would not have access to the internet back home.

“As most college and school students have difficulty accessing online learning methods, the issue must be seen from a social angle and not just from a pandemic or health perspective,” said the Andhra Pradesh Government Doctors Association (APGDA) State Convenor, Dr Jayadheer.

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Gurumurthy Kasinathan, an educator and member of Vidyarthigala Nade Shaleya Kade, a group of parents and civil society activists advocating for opening up of schools in Karnataka (where primary classes from 1 to 5 are yet to be opened), said that closing all educational institutions at this point indicated that the government is assuming that there is no cost in terms of learning loss. “My team and I have held online classes for government school students for several months now. Online education is not a real solution,” he said.

Calling it a matter of priority, Gurumurthy said that the education of the young must take precedence over everything else. “As a society, if we are allowing theatres to remain open but shutting down schools and colleges, it shows our priorities,” he said. He also added that while middle-class children who have parental support may be able to cope and manage to receive some meaningful online education, students from marginalised communities were bound to suffer.. 

While it is not possible for schools and colleges to completely return to their pre-pandemic way of functioning, Gurumurthy said that by having staggered work days, so different groups of students could have classes on different days, limiting the timings and number of students so physical distancing could be followed, learning could continue safely.

Dr Jayadheer said that the effect of coronavirus infection is considerably less in children aged below 15 years. “Even if it affects them, the virulence is less. So if adequate preventive measures are taken, learning can continue to an extent,” he said. In the case of colleges and residential campuses too, solutions could be devised based on available resources. “When this problem emerged last year at the same time, we didn’t know much about how the virus was going to spread. But now, we have a clear idea about how to maintain physical distance and sanitation, and take precautions which can contain the disease,” he added. Dr Jayadgeer also reiterated the importance of testing, tracing and treating at the college and school level.

Gurumurthy suggested that water, soap, sanitisers, thermal sensors and masks of good quality be provided by the government to educational institutions, along with support from the local health centres. “Intensively testing students on a regular basis, ensuring distancing, providing masks and other material, costs money and effort. Closing down colleges and schools is the easy way out,” he said. He suggested that in residential institutions, students and staff could be placed in reverse isolation after testing negative for the virus, so learning could continue. And that the government would have to come up with complex, customised solutions based on each situation. “The government must also vaccinate teachers on priority, by treating them as frontline workers,” he said.

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In some cases, institutions that have meticulously followed protocol have managed to avoid major clusters. For instance, the University of Hyderabad (UoH) had set up a 12-member task force in July 2020, to chalk out a road map for resuming academic activities amid the pandemic. After the Telangana government’s decision to shut colleges, UoH paused further return of students and had put plans for in-person or blended (partly online and offline) classes on hold.

However, until then, around 1200 students had returned to the campus in a phased manner, including research scholars and Master’s students completing their laboratory or thesis work. The phased return happened while adhering to UGC (University Grants Commission) guidelines on COVID-19, and the careful measures adopted helped in limiting cases according to Professor Vinod Pavarala, who headed the UoH COVID-19 task force until its tenure ended on March 31.

Professor Vinod said, ‘As per Union government guidelines, science research scholars and PhD students with pending lab work were allowed to return first, followed by MPhil and PhD research scholars in social sciences and humanities who were in an advanced stage of their thesis. Later, second-year Master’s students started to return in phases.” Students were required to bring a COVID negative report and stay for three to seven days in a campus isolation facility (which could accommodate around 200 students at a time), before moving to their respective hostel rooms. According to the professor, less than 10 COVID-10 cases have been detected on the campus since July 2020. “We haven’t had any clusters, mainly because of the well-calibrated and cautious approach we have taken to the return of students to the hostels. And, the UoH academic calendar is behind by only a month or so. We will catch up with our regular schedule by August,” he said

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Before the Telangana government’s decision to close colleges, the task force had been working with various departments to create a blended learning model, where half the students could be physically present in the classroom while the others could participate remotely, based on their individual circumstances. Health protocols had also been prepared to ensure regular sanitising of classrooms after each class.  

According to Bengaluru-based health expert Dr Sylvia Karpagam, college kids are adults, and while preventive strategies are useful, it was the government’s and institution’s responsibility to create awareness on preventive measures rather than imposing draconian rules that young people are unable to relate to. “College attendance should be made optional. Some kids just need to get out of a claustrophobic home environment. Some urban deprived areas are even more risk-prone environments than schools and colleges,”  she said. She further added that the government needed to work on building trust, especially with vulnerable communities. Dr Jayadheer also said that it was the responsibility of the government and the concerned institute head to persuade students to take precautions.

“Of course if there are COVID-19 cases in a particular college, containment and quarantining, etc. must be done. But when there are no cases, there is no reason to close them down on a mass scale,” added Gurumurthy. Dr Jayadheer also said that a mass closure of schools and colleges could be considered in a situation where all other institutions and commercial establishments were also being shut in a full-blown lockdown. “There is no need to give special preference to closing schools and colleges alone because nowadays we know to an extent how to contain this problem,” he said.

Most importantly, the government’s measures need to keep in mind students from vulnerable communities added Dr Sylvia Karpagam. “The government is neither making an effort to make offline classes less risky nor making online classes accessible. Most of the measures by the government keep the middle class or elite kids’ needs in mind, but not the ones from vulnerable communities who have multiple barriers to access. The adverse impact on these kids, who are often first-time graduates from their families, is huge and cannot be viewed as ‘collateral damage’,” she said. #KhabarLive #hydnews

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