Schools reopened partially at several places across India on a voluntarily basis for the first time since they were shut as part of sweeping measures taken in March to enforce social distancing to check the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic that has claimed around 88,000 lives in the country.
The Centre’s Unlock 4 guidelines, which were issued late last month to further ease the restrictions imposed in March to deal with the pandemic, allowed students of classes 9 to 12 outside containment zones to return to schools on a voluntary basis from September 21 (Monday) to seek academic guidance. The Union health ministry on September 8 issued standard operating procedures (SOPs) saying only 50% teaching/non-teaching staff will be allowed on campuses. Attendance is not mandatory for students.
Schools in four north-eastern states—Assam, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Meghalaya—started functioning in line with the guidelines with safety protocols and social distancing norms in place. Officials said students were allowed to return to schools with written consent from their parents. Schools will remain shut in Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, and Manipur for now.
Assam’s secondary education director, Phanindra Jidung, said the situation will be reviewed after 15 days and that the SOPs for classes are meant for all categories of schools. “Private schools have to decide when they want to resume their classes.”
According to the Assam-specific SOPs, class 9 and 12 students will attend their classes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Classes for class 10 and 11 students will be held on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
Nagaland’s chief secretary, Temjen Toy, said students of classes 9 to 12 were being permitted to visit their schools in areas outside containment zones only on voluntary basis for taking guidance from their teachers, subject to the written consent of their parents/guardians.
The Meghalaya government announced that students would be allowed to return to schools to “clear their doubts” with their teachers. But no regular classes would be held until September 30.
“Regular class activities for schools, colleges, and educational institutions will continue to remain suspended until September 30,” Meghalaya’s principal secretary (education), DP Wahlang, said in an order.
In north India, schools in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and the Union Territories of Chandigarh and Jammu & Kashmir also reopened partially.
Anjali Gupta, the principal of Jammu’s Government Ranbir Higher Secondary School, said they have been instructed to only open schools partially. “…those students who are facing problems with online classes due to network problems, or those who do not have android phones…must come to schools voluntarily to seek guidance from teachers,” she said.
“We have been directed to have 50% of staff. We have made a group for online classes. And we have intimated that those students who want guidance in any subject, they have to get a letter of consent signed by their parents and come to school by following all SoPs given from time to time.” Gupta said they have sanitized and fumigated the school.
The closure of schools over the past few months and advent of online classes as an alternative had triggered concerns about the digital divide among students. Three-fourths of students in India did not have access to the internet at home, according to a 2017-18 all-India National Statistical Office survey. The share of those, who did not have computers or devices such as palm-tops and tablets, was much greater—89%. Access to these facilities was higher among students at higher levels of education. But even at the highest levels, a large share of students did not have access to these facilities, triggering concern among schools, parents and state governments.