Maharashtra health minister Rajesh Tope on Wednesday cited the state paediatric task force’s recommendations to say it is in favour of starting physical school for Class 1 to 4, and said a final decision is likely to be taken on Thursday, November 25.
“The paediatric task force headed by Dr Suhas Prabhu has recommended allowing physical classes of Standards 1 to 4 with social distancing and other such regulations,” Tope said while addressing the media on Wednesday. “Our health department has no objection. Tomorrow is the state cabinet meeting and I think the final decision may be taken then.”
The state government has also requested the Central government to allow vaccination of children in the 12-18 age group, he said. “We should start vaccinating children in the 12-18 age group, as these are students from the 5th standard onwards,” Tope said. “They also tend to be out of home more than the younger age group and are therefore more vulnerable. If someone is infected, he can pass on the infection to his grandparents or his parents who may be co-morbid. Vaccination (for this age group) is happening around the world and Maharashtra is ready with the process.”
The task force’s recommendation, however, has elicited a mixed response from school principals and parents. “As of now, we cannot say that the pandemic is gone completely. In such a situation, who will take responsibility if kids get infected? Students from class 1 to 4 are too young to be able to follow Covid protocols at all times,” said Dr Arundhati Chavan, president of the United Forum Parents Teachers Association, a Mumbai-based organisation representing interests of schoolchildren and their parents.
Chavan added, “Such decisions should not be taken in haste. It would be ideal if we prepare guidelines, ensure proper protocols and start the classes only by next academic year as it is important for students to prepare mentally as well.”
School principals HT spoke to after the minister’s announcement expressed their apprehension about physical classes for the primary section. “We can perhaps start with Class 5 or 6, but it may not be a good idea to resume physical classes for primary students,” said Rupa Roy, principal of Balmohan Vidya Mandir located at Dadar’s Shivaji Park. “It will also be difficult to implement social distancing measures in the classroom since we do not have enough staff. Younger children face a higher risk, and the effect of wearing masks for longer periods among children also needs to be examined.”
Roy said that with almost three-quarters of the academic year completed, there should be no haste to reopen, given the spike in Covid-19 cases globally. Both Europe and the United States are currently witnessing a record surge in cases.
At present, schools in rural Maharashtra are allowed to run physical classes for Standards 5 to 12, while in urban areas, physical classes for Standards 8 to 12 commenced on October 4.
Some schools and parents said getting students from classes 1 to 4 to attend physical classes will expose them to the risk of contracting the infection, while rooting for reopening classes for students from classes 5 to 7.
Schools reported thin attendance prior to Diwali. However, schools that follow the state board received a positive response with most students attending physical sessions as compared to non-state board schools after the Diwali break.
At the Andheri-based Rajhans Vidyalaya, a CBSE school, the attendance for physical sessions among Classes 8 to 12 continues to remain thin. “Parents are still apprehensive, with a majority continuing online classes,” said its principal Kala Gangadharan. “In the current scenario, reopening Standards 5 to 7 will also have a mixed response. Some parents and students may be eager, but some will be reluctant. On the other hand, I do not think parents of students from the primary section will be keen to send their children to school as of now.”
Health minister Tope said that Maharashtra has been witnessing a decline in new cases, and that active cases have fallen below 10,000. “This has resulted in government easing regulations,” he said, while referring to activities apart from resumption of physical classes.
Kavita Aggarwal, chairperson, Members of International Schools Association, an organisation formed by educationists to work with Cambridge international schools in India, said schools can resume twice a week for now. “It has been a long gap and I feel schools for at least Classes 5 to 7 should reopen, followed by primary section also starting gradually,” Aggarwal said. “If children are allowed in parks, malls and public places, then why should they not be allowed in schools? It is important for students and parents to get into the routine of regular classes and also to acclimatise themselves with physical sessions. There has been a big academic gap and it is important for students’ social and academic development that schools reopen at the earliest.”
Anubha Sahai, president, India Wide Parents Association, said, “Working parents who find it difficult to manage younger children at home will be eager for physical classes to resume. At the same time, there will be parents that are hesitant to send young children to school. The government should therefore provide an option, and not force any student to attend school.” Sahai added that higher classes should begin in phases. “Classes 5 to 7 should reopen first in urban pockets and all safety protocols should be in place. Classes can resume twice a week initially.”
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