Amid the pandemic, normalcy was disrupted. Businesses and offices were closed abruptly. Similarly, the education system was among the first to be severely hampered. Schools were shuttered indefinitely, with very few shifting to online education. But the effectiveness of online education is a debatable topic.
India’s pandemic-driven school closures were severe. A recent report from Boston Consulting Group, finds that Indian schools were mostly shut starting from March 2020, with few pockets of re-openings in 2021.
Elementary schools were mostly shut for 12 of 22 major states in India, while secondary schools were open for 40 to 50% of time.
Exhibit 1: School closures in India
A pivot to online education became evident through online learning, YouTube telecasts, TV lessons, WhatsApp videos and e-content portals. But the effectiveness of online education is woefully abysmal. Moreover, in a country like India, a majority do not have access to the tools necessary for online education.
Exhibit 2: Online education outcomes
Online schooling also presents a myriad of challenges such as child labour risk, missed access to mid-day meals and impact on child’s socio-emotional health.
Exhibit 3: Problems of online schooling
What do parents want?
More than 80% of parents are demanding for schools to reopen fully and they are driven by both academic and behavioural challenges.
Exhibit 4: Parents advocating school reopening
How other countries managed school closures?
At the height of the pandemic, many countries chose to keep their schools fully open, while countries such as India and Bangladesh had the most school closures.
Exhibit 5: School closures in select countries, Q1 2020 to Q3 2021
Most countries chose to partially or full reopen school in the second wave of the pandemic, while India chose to keep its schools completely shut.
Exhibit 6: School closures in wave 1 and 2
Meanwhile, countries such as UK, Australia and Singapore were the last to close their schools, and also the first to open it in the first wave of COVID-19. Similarly, in the ensuing waves of 2021, these countries considered opening their schools first.
Exhibit 7: School reopening priorities in select countries
Why schools should reopen?
Many public health officials and top organisations such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF are advocating for schools to reopen, suggesting limited risk.
Exhibit 8: Arguments to school reopening
Additionally, children under the age of 20 years have been found to have lower incidence and fatality rates from COVID-19.
Exhibit 9: Select countries, COVID-19 incidence and fatality rates
And even when schools were reopened in select Indian states, cases of COVID-19 didn’t spike.
Exhibit 10: COVID-19 tracker of select Indian states
And with increasing penetration of vaccination in India, lower severity of people affected by the Omicron variant is expected.
Exhibit 11: Lower severity with increasing vaccination
How India can change?
India can learn much from how other countries managed to reopen their schools amid waves of COVID-19 infection. Since 2020, many of these countries moved from central to a lower unit of governance when it comes to deciding on schools reopening.
Exhibit 12: Decentralised norms on school reopening
Decentralised control on school reopening played a crucial role on mass closures of schools in these countries.
Exhibit 13: Open schools in select countries in 2021
But India’s decentralised decision making has led to closures of school, even in districts with less than 25 daily cases.
Exhibit 14: Average daily cases in Indian districts, 1-8 Jan 2022
India will need to transit into a philosophy where schools are given more priority – where they are last to close and first to open.
Exhibit 15: India to act on 4 key areas
Additionally, ensuring schools reopen fully will take collective efforts from all stakeholders involved.
Exhibit 16: Every stakeholder contribution