Reopening of Schools: Safety Protocols – Voice of the Ecosystem & Impact on Security Personnel

Anil Puri
CMD, APS group

A thought leader and an action catalyzer rolled into one – Anil Puri is a rare combination of a visionary and one who has mastered the art of strategic and tactical thinking to the core. He has been using this combination to seed new ideas and to lead them to their implementation on-ground. This has been a consistent feature of his career. He has rich experience of approximately 35 years in corporate in diverse domains & from functional managerial level to be the founder of a successful business empire which he now heads as chairman of a corporate group. Security and Safety of schools and education institutes has come to APS Group as a heritage. Huge number of clientele from this domain prompted him to jot down his perception of the current landscape in the light of almost two years of onslaught by COVID 19 into the education ecosystem, constraints of the regulatory authorities and dilemma of parents to continue with on line learning Platform or switch to off line traditional campus learning as was in past. GoI, State Govts and UTs have issued the exhaustive guidelines and advisories on the subject to address and safeguard the health & safety of children volunteering to revert back to school/ college campus environment of learning. Many models globally experimented/ contemplated are available for study and analysis. While authorities are keen to open up and revert back to Pre COVID times but for obvious reasons, the response of the parents has been very reserved and more of reluctance. The prolonged period of virtual learning and loss of near and dear ones due to COVID has emotionally rendered the environment at a loss. Here he shares his thoughts on this live issue . . .

Introduction

COVID has been both a health and an education disaster. All schools were closed without any hesitation when COVID struck. Cautious reopening has begun at higher levels but primary and upper schools have remained closed for approx 500 days. This is a new ground with no precedents. It requires careful planning, ample funding and flexibility to adjust to difficulties and challenges that arise. After a gap of more than one year, schools have finally started to re-open. Going back to school has elicited a jumble of emotions for teachers, parents, students and administration who wanted to see children back in schools but feared the infection. Most students are thrilled to be back. Economists have shown that human capital skilling, starting with schooling, is far more important than financial capital. Various survey reports of school education also show that 97% of parents in rural households want school reopening, not to mention the educators and economists because India’s human capital is being eroded by the school closure. However, the researchers have also highlighted the need for an extended transition to help teachers and students overcome the scars of the COVID. ‘A business as usual’ approach risks dooming entire age group to functional illiteracy. School opening is a must but should be accompanied by a completely new transitional approach to help students make up for the 500 days lost. Most teachers are also looking forward to offline schooling.

Governments response

The Central Govt’s response has been highly proactive and balanced keeping in mind numerous environmental and socio-economic factors. MHA has issued a very exhaustive and detailed checklist for safe school environment. The Ministry of Home Affairs vide Order no. 40-3/2020-DM-I(A) dated 30 September 2020, has issued guidelines for re-opening, following lockdown measures put in place for containment of COVID-19 in the country under the under the Disaster Management Act, 2005. Among the activities permitted outside the containment zones is the re-opening of schools and coaching institutions in a graded manner, it has been left open to the State/ UT Government to take a decision in consultation with the respective school/ institution management, based on their assessment of the situation and subject to the following conditions:

  1. Online/ distance learning shall continue to be the preferred mode of teaching and shall be encouraged.
  2. Where schools are conducting online classes, and some students prefer to attend online classes rather than physically attend school, they may be permitted to do so.
  3. Students may attend schools/ institutions only with the written consent of parents.
  4. Attendance must not be enforced and must depend entirely on parental consent
  5. States/ UTs will prepare their own standard operating procedure (SOP) regarding health and safety precautions for reopening of schools/ institutions based on SOP to be issued by Department of School Education and Literacy (DoSEL), Ministry of Education, Government of India, keeping local requirements in view.
  6. Schools which are allowed to open, will have to mandatorily follow the SOP to be issued by Education Departments of States/ UTs prepared as above. Accordingly, the Department of School Education and Literacy, Ministry of Education, has prepared the following guidelines/ SOP for re-opening of schools.

SOP for health hygiene and safety protocols

The Guidelines are divided into two parts:

Part I refers to the health and safety aspects for reopening schools. These are based on the prevailing instructions of Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Health and Family Welfare with regard to health and safety protocols, and maybe implemented by adopting/ adapting in accordance with the local situation in all states/ UTs. These SOPs cover every possible aspects of safety protocols such as:

  1. SOPs for health, hygiene and other safety protocols ‘before opening’ of schools.
  2. SOPs for health, hygiene and other safety protocols ‘after opening’ of schools.
  3. SOPs for serving ‘mid-day meal’ in school.

SOP for health hygiene and safety protocols before opening of schools

It is pertinent to note that many schools have been used as quarantine centers, therefore, it is of utmost importance to properly sanitize/ deep clean all of these schools before reopening them. School re-opening must be safe and consistent and aligned with India’s overall COVID-19 health response, with adequate measures taken to protect students, teachers, other staff, cook-cum-helpers and their families. For school administration sanitization of entire school premises, spaced sitting arrangements and good ventilation and much more have become the norm. Getting parent’s consent, checking vaccination status of teachers, students above 18 years and non-teaching staff, thermal checks, getting everyone to wear masks at all times, ensuring sanitization of hands and maintaining social distancing between students are various challenges they face. School administration and teachers need to be vigilant as no compromise can be made.

Teachers and other staff may be encouraged to use Arogya Setu Application for their own as well as others safety. SOP dwells on the following aspects:

  1. Ensure proper cleaning and sanitation facilities in the school.
  2. Form different task teams.
  3. Seating plan. Maintaining minimum of six feet distance between students.
  4. Ensure physical/ social distancing at the entry and exit points of the school by staggering timing of entry & exit for students of different classes. Earmarking different lanes for coming and going.
  5. School SOPs based on guidelines from States/ UTs.
  6. Display signage and markings for enforcing physical/ social distancing and safety protocols.
  7. Staggering timetables – some alternatives.
  8. Parent’s/ guardian’s consent.
  9. Sensitize students, parents, teachers, community members and hostel staff on COVID-19 related challenges and their role.
  10. Ensure availability of medical support.
  11. Access to textbooks.

SOP for health hygiene and safety protocols after opening of schools

The salient issues which have been dealt in this part are:

  1. Ensure continuous maintenance and monitoring of cleanliness and hygienic conditions in and around school premises.
  2. Making students’ stay safe in school.
  3. Ensure safe commuting of students.
  4. Implement safe school practices for safe arrival and departure of staff and students.
  5. Ensure safety norms in classrooms and other places.
  6. Protocol to be followed in case of detection of a suspected case of COVID-19.
  7. Physical/ social distancing during distribution of midday meal.

SOPs for mid-day meals

To meet the nutritional requirements of children and safeguard their immunity during the COVID-19 outbreak, States/ UTs were advised to provide hot cooked mid-day meal or its equivalent food security allowance to eligible children during closure of schools and summer vacations. These broad guidelines are aimed at helping state/ district/ block authorities to prepare for resuming the normal cooking and serving of mid-day meal in schools with focus on food safety, health, and hygiene along with physical/ social distancing:

  1. Entry of cook-cum-helpers (CCH) in schools.
  2. Cleaning kitchen cum store or the place of cooking.
  3. Cleaning of utensils for cooking and serving of MDM.
  4. Checking of old stock of food grains, oil & fat and condiments before use.
  5. Washing & cutting of vegetables and cleaning of foodgrains and pulses etc.
  6. Cooking of the mid-day meals.
  7. Serving of mid-day meals.
  8. Hand washing by school children before and after having MDM.
  9. Drinking water supply.
  10. Management of waste.
  11. Involving stakeholders

Part II refers to learning with physical/ social distancing and the academic aspects related to the delivery of education such as curriculum transactions, instructional load, timetables, assessment etc. These are advisory in nature. States & UTs may use these in the manner deemed fit to prepare their own guidelines and cover the following aspects:

  1. Redefining teaching, learning and assessment to achieve desired learning outcomes.
  2. Ensuring smooth transition of students from home-based schooling during lockdown to formal schooling.
  3. Ensuring emotional well-being of students and teachers
  4. Specific roles and responsibilities of State/ UT education department.
  5. Checklist for safe school environment.
  6. Capacity building of stakeholders.

Redefining teaching, learning and assessment to achieve desired learning outcomes

The SOPs have emphasized that online/ distance learning shall continue to be the preferred mode of teaching and should be encouraged. However, the following SOPs may be followed for face to face classes in schools and online learning before school reopening:

  1. Preparation of teaching-learning: Making a comprehensive alternative calendar of activities for the whole year with focus on learning outcomes. States may consider dividing the total school hours between school and home.
  2. It is suggested that broad categories such as the following could be considered.
    1. Number of hours at school.
    2. Number of hours spent at home school hours (active learning).
    3. Number of hours spent on keeping physically and mentally healthy.
    4. Number of hours spent on creative activities related to art, and art integration.

States/ UTs may like to consider rationalizing the curriculum into 3 components:

  1. Classroom lessons – which could include essential topics that are conceptually difficult to understand.
  2. Self-learning lessons – which could include essential but conceptually easier to understand.
  3. Not a part of the core area of curriculum or learning outcomes – which could be kept aside this year for elementary level, flexibility may be given at school level depending on the number of academic days available.

For secondary and senior secondary level, the respective boards may be advised to consider revisiting their curriculum.

  1. Academic calendar may be realigned for the whole year in accordance with the emerging situation. Comprehensive academic plan can be prepared as per the guidelines received from the concerned Directorate of Education.
  2. School calendar needs to make syllabus learning outcome-based rather than theme-based; decentralized planning may be at the school level for blended/ diverse mode learning, and also a clear policy on assessment of children.
  3. The comprehensive academic plan should clearly depict the topics to be covered at school and activities to be covered at home by the students along with the proper methods and rubrics of assessment.
  4. This plan may follow guidelines of alternative academic calendar prepared by the NCERT.

Ensuring smooth transition of students from home-based schooling during lockdown to formal schooling

Looking at the current pandemic situation, inequitable access to infrastructure for online teaching and internet connectivity and non-availability of smart phones with all parents, NCERT has come out with alternative academic calendar which only expects a basic mobile to make a connection between child or parent with a school teacher, so that teacher can initially guide parent or student. Later, students can do self-study with the help of parents or siblings. The alternative academic calendar is based on multiple pedagogies guided learning followed by self-study and are available on the web link http://ncert.nic.in/aac.htm.

How safe is resumption of physical classes in schools

Resumption of physical classes as per the Govt directive is being greeted with a mixed response from parents and students. There is an upbeat feeling amongst students to go back to real classes from the virtual ones. They are excited about the interaction with the peers. However, there would be a constant fear of COVID. Vaccination will take its course but a positive mindset would take some more time to build up the tempo. Students, parents, teachers and administration are well aware of the risks that COVID poses. However, with months of preparation coupled with strict monitoring and hygiene protocol and a dedicated school resumption taskforce; schools are ready with all precautionary measures and are eagerly awaiting the sound of laughter and cheer in school corridors once the State Govt permits. The country has been in the process of unlocking for quite some time now and students would have witnessed their parents, older siblings and other family members regularly going out to work and study. This would give them some confidence to do so themselves. There will still be some apprehension which will ensure that students take COVID protocols seriously but this should not hamper the teaching – learning process. The resumption of the offline classes will initially keep the students and their parents in fear but it will not hamper the learning since most students and parents are fed up with ongoing online teaching regimen which they consider boring and ineffective. More over the fear of COVID will be removed if the schools strictly follow the COVID guidelines and regulations.

Why it is time to go back to school?

Every day 6 & 1/2 long hours on Zoom is brutal. Most students kept the cameras off while several did not respond leading to differential learning. The technology for remote learning grapples with issues such as hardware and poor connectivity. It took time to get all students logged in, Internet connections drop constantly and it is difficult for students to pay attention while dealing with distracting noises or some unavoidable situations at home. Some schools adopted live streaming classes to students at home; while others provide instructions via work sheets, videos and assignments. Sanity of tests are compromised as teachers are apprehensive about students using the ‘open book’ method. Various complications were also faced by teachers, as they feel inhibited while teaching when others in household would listen in. Often as parents walk through rooms, they hear something they don’t agree with and question the teacher. Others complain about the teaching method or disagree with answer given to a student question. We need to consider the emotional aspects as well. Most teachers would be thrilled to have their wards back under their wings. However the most difficult part of this transition is the student’s emotional aspect. It was relaxing to sit in the comfort zone of their homes and it will be difficult to get back to their hectic schedule. While the initial euphoria of meeting their teachers & friends after a long break is exciting, soon this upbeat feeling will wear off. Strict restrictions, hectic schedules, tuitions and wearing masks for long hours, all of this may cause depression amongst young students. Drowsiness, anger bouts, mood swings and depression are symptoms that all parents and teachers must look out for once offline classes restart. An understanding, encouraging and empathetic approach will help bring children back to their normal selves. We are facing a huge emotional upheaval with the third wave looming over us and we must be careful to make offline schooling safe.

Children are already protected and not at additional risk

There are two main concerns around sending children to schools. First – CoV2, the virus that causes COVID 19 and the risk of severe infections among them. Second – children transmitting infection onto other family members especially the elderly. Fourth, National Sero Survey shows that children have already got COVID 19 infection at a similar or even higher rate than adults, mostly asymptomatic and with far lower rate of moderate to severe diseases therefore they are already protected and not at additional risk. About the fear of children spreading infection to the family member, the expert group quotes a report from 15 countries observed an increase in transmission due to school re-opening. Also this is not a long term solution, we must open the schools. While Delhi has positivity rate of less than 0.1%, states like Maharashtra and Kerala continue to have positivity rate much higher. If at all the localized epidemiology can be taken into account for closure of schools in particular areas to prevent disease spread in future the safeguards suggested by IAPSM while reopening schools include proper ventilation in classrooms, avoiding morning assembly for the entire school and training teachers. The expert group has also recommended linking the schools to local health facilities or strengthening the school health program. On the need for vaccination of young children, IAPSM states that there is no evidence that vaccination for kids is essential. In more than 175 countries, the schools are open but no country in the world has vaccinated children younger than 12 years. The risk of moderate to severe disease is already very low among the children.

For Parents – Is there any reason to panic?

The pandemic has silently affected the mental and physical health of children in myriad ways, but there is no biological indication that the third wave will impact them more. It is a hypothetic assumption that the third wave of the pandemic will affect the most. The big question is – if everything is open outside, then why not the schools? Why are they being treated as the last bastion?

Impact of the switching back to formal schooling on security

Security personnel may be assigned additional task of assisting the school administration in thermal scanning, maintenance of social distancing, monitoring the Arogya Setu status, wearing of masks and sanitization of hands.

Conclusion

The extent and severity of COVID-19 is evolving and changing with time and also varies spatially from region to region. The response and safety protocols will accordingly need to be adjusted to these varying dynamics by those responsible for policy framework at GoI, States/ UTs level from time to time. States/ UTs may plan additional measures depending on the local situation while adopting the measures suggested. I am not an expert on education system but a deep dive into the guidelines issued by the MHA has been an eye opener and has generated huge confidence and assurance at a personal level. However drawing a plan on the map meticulously does not ensure its successful execution on ground. Therefore, it is now the states and UTs in consultation with education institutions who will have to uphold the guidelines and policies to save the nation from erosion of human capital being rendered by closure of schools.



 

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