While there certainly are positives if this decision comes about, there are booby traps too
The coming weeks will bring some anxious moments for crores of students as the States think of reopening of schools, colleges and universities, assured that the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has nearly subsided. The question is whether the country is at all prepared to get the education system back to full throttle after a gap of one-and-a-half years. The resumption of offline education is also closely linked to the vaccination drive and the Government has to take a policy decision on vaccinating the school-going population in the 2-18 age group as a prelude to the resumption of physical classes. A few States are already inclined to reopen the institutions in July itself. Most of the States, however, are wavering, appearing to prefer continuing with online teaching. Their worry is the prospect of a third wave of the pandemic. As a country, collectively, quite a few decisions need to be taken in this month. Any further delay will affect the academic future of the students. The policy on vaccination of students gets the highest priority. But is there a policy? We are yet to be acquainted with the status of research by the vaccine manufacturers on doses for children. Zydus Cadila says its plasmid DNA vaccine can be used on adolescents in the 12-18 age group and has sought Emergency Use Authorisation. The vaccine is revolutionary, but peer review of its use on children is yet to be known.
On the other hand, India’s drug regulator has rejected the Serum Institute of India’s application to conduct trials of the vaccine, Covovax, on children aged two to 17 years. The company has been asked to first conduct the trials on adults. It is best to recall that the Government and the courts supported cancelling the CBSE examinations keeping students’ safety in mind and the fact that they were not vaccinated. By what logic then can educational institutions be reopened without vaccinations? The second worrying aspect is getting the students acclimatised to attending schools and offline teaching after such a long gap. If sitting at home has taken a mental toll, a sudden change in the form of going to school needs getting used to. Online teaching, for all its positives, is lax on discipline when compared to classroom teaching. Students of schools without internet facilities who have begun to use digital technology in online classes will face trouble adjusting to blackboards instead of laptops. A report by the Unified District Information System for Education Plus reveals that only 22 per cent of schools that closed down due to the pandemic had internet facilities. This is only the tip of the iceberg of the digital divide that will affect students when classes resume. In the rural areas, erratic power supply is an additional factor that discourages hybrid learning. The educational institutions will also need to consider innovative methods of filling the learning gap the pandemic has created.