By Roli S
In the states where Covid 19 infection rates have stabilised the idea that the schools should reopen soon is gaining ground and there is a possibility of some schools slowly but surely coming back to life. The implication of this eventuality has now become clearer as the critical situation of the pandemic drags on with no definitive end in sight.
There is no clear-cut solution to this pandemic problem. Still the forward momentum in the country points to the opening of the schools that have been languishing under the shadow of the pandemic for far too long. I am of the view that the schools even when they open may look nothing like the schools that we knew, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see some schools still remaining closed as the ‘lockdowns’ end.
I imagine schools are going to open with the gigantic smiles (hidden behind the masks!) of the students who were really struggling with anxiety and uncertainty during the height of the pandemic. Though the worry about the new outbreaks will remain but teachers and students should be happy to be back in the schools because the return will not only bring them a sense of normalcy and routine but also the network of friends to keep each other grounded.
The opening of the schools will bring along with it new challenges as the complicated logistics of social distancing—the choreographing of arrivals and exits, in-school transitions, and seating arrangements, etc., need to be taken care of because there will be many bodies in motion. Kids crowd each other as they line up to exit or enter the classrooms. Being realistic about the limitations of rules and protocols is crucial. Overcrowding as the root of the problem will have to be tackled by splitting classes in half and adopting an alternate day schedule, etc. This hybrid approach has been adopted around the globe. Following this approach, half of the class will attend school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the other half will distance-learn from home. Then they will swap their schedule. On Wednesdays, all students will learn remotely, while the building is deep cleaned, high-needs students receive more individual attention, and educators will have to plan lessons and hold crucial meetings to address emerging issues and kinks in the system.
As I think about school reopening there appears to be no clear path without some form of online learning because there will be families with vulnerable or weak children who will choose to continue with distance learning instead of returning to the school when they open up. Even vulnerable teachers in several schools will want to stay at home and teach via Zoom to a classroom monitored by another staff member probably.
That is why in my opinion there are no answers to reopening without a continued emphasis on tech integration. This is because not only for teaching, the technology will be needed to conduct school assemblies as synchronous broadcasts to classrooms across the building. Flipped classrooms and blended learning approaches will emerge as new, durable models for the schools. Even competitions and debates between schools may be organised online.
A strong technology foundation will be able to provide flexibility and continuity if the virus re-emerges and postpones reopening or forces another round of school closures or when remediation or extended hours are needed to make up for significant learning loss among students.
Face-to-face teaching will not change but teachers will now have added teaching to do in the form of online content. As to be expected, this will increase workload on teachers, so, if a hybrid model is to work well for any period of time, close attention to this issue appears to be vital—and models that recognise and seek to reduce the workload for teachers will likely be much more successful. Maybe an all-hands-on-deck policy can be implemented by pulling in staff that is not classroom teachers to lend a hand with distance learning.
Teachers (and parents) are already much worried about their children losing outdoor playtime during the pandemic, so when the schools reopen students will have to be given time to play even if it is at their own desk with activities like origami and classroom games, maintaining the social distancing rules.
Outdoor recess will have to become an integral part of the school day. Monkey bars, slides, and other playground equipment can be used provided the structures are frequently cleaned and sanitised but games that involve close and frequent touch will have to be discouraged. Even the times of recess can be staggered to eliminate congestion near washrooms and on the ground. Restricting of hallway use, staggered release of classes, etc., will have to be followed.
I understand that there are no detailed guidelines on how all the changes will work and not all strategies will be feasible for all the schools and in all the classes, but with fair amount of preparation and staff oversight, it will be mostly manageable. Frequent handwashing and cleaning of high-touch surfaces like door handles, desks, and classroom materials to mitigate viral spread will remain the mainstay in all the schools, when they reopen. In fact, handwashing is such serious business, it will have to be included in daily schedules of all the schools after reopening, often between five and ten times a day.
Lastly, wearing of masks will continue to hinder the sharing of smiles between teachers, students, and classmates but, in many schools, masks will still be required for students and teachers till decline in Covid cases provides some relaxation of the standards around mask-wearing!
All in all, there will definitely be no one-size fits all solution and the decision to reopen the schools will require close coordination and cooperation between students, teachers and the parents. We may rephrase the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” to “It will take the world to educate a generation amidst change.”
(Roli S is an Educator, Teacher Trainer, Author and School Reviewer based in Thane)