When Akshata, 14, refused to attend classes online, her parents were infuriated and scolded her. Very upset, she left the house and hid on the terrace. “I want to go to school and will never learn online,” she shared.
This is not an isolated incident as hundreds of children are lining up at the clinics of mental health professionals with excessive anger, violence, extreme sadness, loss of interest in studies and in rare cases, with thoughts of self-harm.
Organisations such as Prerana have found an increase in child marriages during the pandemic in Maharashtra.
Let us not fool ourselves for too long! Laborious creative intrusions by educationists and mental health professionals to create pseudo-school environments at home and in households are slowly failing.
The minds of kids are slowly refusing to accept house arrest and want to rush out of the golden cage which we are selling. The kids have seen through the mirage.
A document published by the Indian Psychiatric Society and other organisations on the ‘Impact of pandemic on mental and emotional health in children, strategy for reopening schools' recently states that ‘A soft launch with 3-4 classes can be carried out on a trial basis. 50 % of the class strength (odd/ even roll numbers) can attend the class in person and the remaining can attend from home via online streaming of lectures/ pre-recorded lectures. Pre-primary classes can be functional for 2 days a week, primary and middle school (1st- 8th Standard) classes can be operational three days a week and secondary classes (9th and 10th) can be operational on all 5 days (Monday-Friday)’.
I had proposed to the Maharashtra government a plan of ‘Two-Hour School’ on May 16 , 2021. I had said, “Let us look at a scenario of students coming to school from 1st to the 10th in a phased manner! Let Std 1 come at a particular time for two hours. Let them be distributed across classrooms and be exposed to fun-filled learning.
“One hour of studies and one hour of fun in the playground, if available, or in the classroom. Safe distance has to be managed. Attendance has to be voluntary always. After two hours, get Class 2 with a gap of one hour. So, on a working day, three standards can be managed. Every standard will be in school once or twice a week. Covid-appropriate behaviour needs to be strictly followed. When kids are distributed across many classrooms, more teachers from other standards too will be involved. Kids should be empowered to wear a mask, observe social distancing and hygiene. Can this be managed in a school? Yes!”
A Draft Report of Parliament, Rajya Sabha, emphasises the need for ‘intensive bridge courses and accelerated programmes’ for bridging the learning gap that is very huge ! Starting schools would be a step in the right direction!
Starting schools need to be decided mindfully, taking into consideration the present and changing scenario. Many districts in the state are almost free of Covid.
A beginning should be made in these districts, with the two-hour module in mind! Is this so difficult? Not at all! A start, even a ‘skeletal’ one, will spread hope and confidence across the state.
The paediatric taskforce is of the opinion that ‘while it is conscious of the effects of and problems created by the prolonged closure of schools, with the third wave likely in the next month or so, it would not be wise to open schools right away.’
I differ with the opinion of the taskforce! My logic is that in those districts that are clear, we need to begin and in a few schools in other districts, as a pilot project. Needless to say, all school personnel need to be vaccinated ASAP, just like health workers.
Saving lives is important but dealing with the silent mental health epidemic is more important. The burden of mental health consequences in families will reduce, once the schools begin.
A holistic approach in the Covid era is more important than a lopsided one, where exaggerated ‘fear of the virus’ has affected policymakers who are blind to the mental health consequences.
The WHO  states:
· One in six people mentally ill are aged 10-19 years.
· Mental health conditions account for 16% of the global burden of disease and injury in people aged 10-19 years.
· Half of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age but most cases are undetected and untreated.
We cannot increase the burden! Let’s do a course correction now! Let the laughter come back!
The writer is a renowned psychiatrist in Mumbai. He is currently practising at the Dr L H Hiranandani Hospital in Powai, Mumbai. He is also a member of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) and the Indian Psychiatric Society
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