In all areas that require comprehensive and timely measures, especially in the social sector, the governments (both Union and state) in India, often do not act in a timely manner. When they decide to act, the measures remain half-hearted and actions symbolic. The latest in this list, is the painfully slow reopening of schools for in-person classes, mostly for older children in class 9 to 12.
The move to reopen schools in India continues to be delayed by the majority of the state governments in India, despite mounting scientific and epidemiological evidence indicating that in the pandemic, whenever Covid-19 related restrictions are removed, schools should be the first to open and the last to close. Schools should be opened for in-person classes, as science and epidemiology tell us that (a) children, among all age groups, are at the least and lowest risk of the Covid-19 moderate to severe disease; (b) schools do not increase the risk of SARS CoV-2 transmission in the community; (c) Covid-19 vaccination is not a requirement to reopen the schools; and (d) the primary school should be the first to open before schools for other age groups.
Inequities in learning
Leading researchers have reported that school closures have widened inequities in learning and a leading professional association in India, comprising 6,000 medical doctors and professionally trained epidemiologists, has categorically recommended that it is safe to open all the schools, including pre-schools, with the required safety measures.
The state governments in India have done exactly the opposite of what science and epidemiology say: schools were the first to close and the last (and for many classes yet) to open. This is in spite of the fact that health and education experts and policymakers all agree that online classes are not an alternative for in-person schooling and learning. Thus, the question arises: What are the governments waiting for? Are the governments, knowingly or unknowingly, failing to fulfil their constitutional obligations to the children?
The Constitution of India mandates the right to free and compulsory education for children aged six to 14 years (Article 21A) and the states have been assigned the responsibility for the care and education of all children below six years of age (Article 45). The Covid-19 pandemic-related closure of the schools and some of the disruption in the education sector was unavoidable; however, with evolving science and epidemiological evidence, the world is wiser and most countries have resumed in-person schooling for all age groups. Most have children in primary classes back in schools, except for India and a few other countries.
Learning is not the only loss. An estimated 115 million school-age children in India get mid-day meals when they attend classes, and the school closures in India continue to impact both the learning and nutrition of children, which to an extent, is in violation of the right to nutrition and life (Articles 47 and 21). Furthermore, with limited or no access to the right devices and assured internet connectivity for children in the lower socio-economic strata – both in rural and urban India – the learning gap has widened between affluent and poor children, which violates the right to equality, that is enshrined in Article 14.
Eighteen months into the pandemic, scientific and epidemiological evidence indicates that the risk of Covid-19 for children is low and the benefits of in-person learning are far greater. In many recent surveys and discussions, a majority – of up to 90 per cent – of poor parents, especially those whose children study in government schools, wanted physical classes to resume. Only a small proportion of parents with access to all resources, including personalised tutoring for their children, are opposed to school opening.
These parents are in leadership positions in the parents’ associations and are apparently more vocal than the majority, of mostly poorer parents, for whose children the reopening of schools is the only chance to ensure a proper education. While scientific evidence supports school-reopening, much of the opposition to the reopening of schools is based on emotional arguments and devoid of scientific and rational thinking. Article 51A (h) of the Constitution of India requires citizens to develop a scientific and rational temper.
Hurry up, already
It is a matter of urgency that schools reopen. The only discussion should be what each stakeholder can and should do to facilitate and accelerate the process. Article 51A(k) of the Indian Constitution says that parents are also responsible for the education of children. To fulfil this responsibility, it is time parents actively demand that governments to reopen schools and take the necessary steps to make schools safe for children. The school reopening has to be a decentralised and locally owned process. Under Article 243, there is a provision for panchayati raj institutions (PRI) and decentralised governance and through the 73rd and 74th Amendments in the Constitution, PRI and urban local bodies have been empowered to take decisions. Under these provisions, local self-government should consider facilitating the reopening of schools.
The continuous closure of schools has deprived millions of children in India of their constitutional right to education, learning, equality, and nutrition. During the pandemic, the Supreme Court of India has taken regular suo-motu cognisance of many Covid-19 related matters. However, responding to a PIL a few days ago, the court had refused to intervene with the state government’s decisions on reopening schools. Considering the critical role of in-person learning and the linked rights of children, the question arises, what avenues are left for the children to get redressal against the slow and arguably unscientific decision-making by policymakers?
The writer, a physician-epidemiologist, is one of India’s most prominent experts on the Covid-19 pandemic. Virag Gupta is a practising advocate in the Supreme Court of India
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