Learning loss during the pandemic can be compensated in future years with adjustment modules added on, but when compounded with the losses in equity due to the digital divide, we must begin to worry. Schools are shut for good reason for the pandemic still rules the world, and we know that both children and their families are at risk when schools reopen.
We are fatigued and crave the freedoms of the past when we could run free, meet our friends and do so much more. But that is no reason to indulge ourselves and put lives at risk. School reopening can only be justified under tight rules, strictly adhered to, and in line with safety norms. Neither safety, nor self-discipline has been a key feature of school lives so far; so it would be a tough ask.
Some state governments have started to reopen schools. Some selective priorities like socially-distanced examinations, laboratory time and board exam preparations have been open for a while. Health advisories have been put out and the norms are known. What is still not known is whether children can gather together in clusters, since early evidence suggested that children had been spared the virus, but later evidence showed that children could be carriers and indeed, suffer the virus themselves. It would be a brave parent, or one in need, who would send their child out into such a risky situation unless there was regular mass testing, honest information and a rapid response system in place — and these three need to be developed before any school openings can be envisaged with safety.
Festival seasons in India have always coincided with good weather, and that is our signal for enabling schools to pick up the pace. Ancient traditions of open-air, or inside outside schools, may also be safe to run, with masks and precautions. Even schools that are cramped, overly dependent on the four-walled classroom will need to flip this dependency and move out into wide-open spaces, plazas and common areas as much as we can and still maintain teaching and learning. Schools that can do so have an opportunity to beat the learning lag.
There is no such thing as a completely safe solution, as has been found in countries such as the United Kingdom where schools have opened. There have been many reports of disease spread, and myriad notices sent home to parents to isolate their children for another fortnight because they had contact with Covid-19 at school.
This is not reassuring for us, who strain for learning. One key lesson we can take from this is that stable schooling is not possible for now. Entire classes, indeed schools, will have to stay at home and be isolated when there is a case at school. Blended learning has come centre-stage, hybrid will certainly have to be the norm. We educators need to work faster towards models of hybrid learning that are not wholly dependent on the internet or screens as the pandemic peaks and eases off.
Before we arrive close to the new normal, we have a turbulent journey for schools ahead of us. Even if schools reopen, they have to be prepared for a new 3D — dynamic, disrupted and distributed.
Stable school schedules will not be possible when entire schools can be disrupted with just one super-spreader. In response to this erratic, disrupted open-and-shut paradigm, schools will need to learn dynamic scheduling — a new skill with a much deeper understanding of teaching and learning progress and responsive resourcing actions. None of this can be done centrally, or even at the state level, for contagion clusters are by definition local — so decisions on open and close will have to be distributed.
This is what schools have to prepare for now — dynamic responses to distributed decision-making on safety that inevitably lead to disrupted calendars.
It’s a hard call, but inevitable, if and when schools reopen.
Meeta Sengupta is an educator, adviser and speaker on education, skills, leadership and governance
The views expressed are personal