It did not last long. 10 days after the reopening of schools in Delhi for Classes 1 to 5, they had to be closed again because of severe air pollution in the national capital region. According to the latest, schools will remain closed till November 21st, but if they do reopen after that, the experiences and observations reported here from early November may well continue to present the true scenario among schools, teachers and students.
Sagar and Sonali were overjoyed when they learnt that they would be going back to their school in Ghazipur from November 1st. Their mother Kriti Sagar Kumar was also excited that she would then be able to pursue her work as a saleswoman for a small grocery store. A few days earlier, she had signed the mandatory consent form that parents are required to submit if they want to send their children to school. Sagar was entering class three without attending a day of class two, Sonali was going into class five.
The mother was happy her children were neither nervous nor reluctant to go to school after such a long gap. She ensured they wore a mask, carried their own water bottle and lunch box, and told them to maintain distance, sanitise their hands etc. But not every parent shared Kriti’s sentiments about the reopening of schools.
When an East Delhi Municipal Corporation school in Gandhi Nagar opened its doors to class 1-5 students on November 1st, teachers expected to be greeted noisily by enthusiastic students who had been telling them during online classes and on the phone that they were desperate to get back to class. But the atmosphere was sombre. Only 40% of parents had signed the consent form. The Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) had allowed only half the student strength to attend physical classes after the reopening of schools on a given day, so that classes alternated in two batches. But even then, less than half of the expected students showed up.
“The consent form requires parents to endorse that they will not send their ward to school if they or anyone in the family show COVID-like symptoms,” was the reason school principal Vibha Singh attributed for the low attendance. “With the change of season and the severity of air pollution in the capital, almost everyone was coughing.”
Also, many parents preferred to wait and watch how things pan out during the first two to three weeks. Especially as the schools would close for Diwali holidays from November 4th, then for Chath Puja for four days beginning November 7th. Also, these schools don’t run buses to pick up and drop the children.
The municipal schools had held widely publicised and well-attended PTA meetings ahead of the planned reopening of schools. On October 29th, the East Delhi Municipal Corporation schools had jointly organised a “mega parent teachers’ meeting”, which was attended among others, by the Mayor, the Chairman of the Education Committee of the east Delhi municipal corporation (EDMC) and the Commissioner of EDMC.
The idea was to communicate effectively and counsel the parents, about what they should expect, and how they should participate in the process of sending their wards to school after almost two years. And sanitising of school premises had begun on a war footing.
But on November 1st, it was not just the students who were missing. The first official letter principal Vibha Singh signed was to the Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM) of East Delhi, appealing to him to send teachers back to school.
Over 60% of teachers in all the MCD schools — 90 % in some cases — were doing other duties: from standing with the traffic cops as they cut chalans, participating in COVID related door-to-door surveys, motivating people to go for vaccination, door-to-door duties urging the electorate of Delhi to update their status in the voters’ list, manning the Electoral Roll Revision Centres and the Free Rations Distribution Centres in schools, among others.
The Delhi government had begun testing the waters and reopened physical classes for students of Classes 9 to 12 on September 1st and for class six to eight a week later. An expert committee set up by the DDMA to go into the issue of reopening of schools had recommended that it be done in a phased manner. They also issued a detailed set of guidelines on the reopening process. The stress was on enforcing COVID-appropriate behaviour.
Hybrid is here to stay
It was made clear that even after schools open, teaching and learning would continue in hybrid mode. The DDMA had made it clear that physical classes were not compulsory, giving parents the choice of continuing with online classes if they so want.
In Delhi, classes to 1-5 are entirely managed by the MCD-run schools while the Delhi government manages learning from class six onwards. So managing this latest reopening fell largely on MCD school teachers and principals. And there is no common template that governs the school layout, classroom design and seating arrangement in any of the MCD or government-run schools.
The first day at school, according to Mamta Sinha, class three teacher in a Shahadra school, was pretty difficult on students. “Some of them would have imagined school life as it was before COVID,” said Mamta. “But now there is no scope for enjoying with friends. Temperature checking, ensuring they wear their masks, seeing their teachers masked, have all made it a somewhat difficult experience for them”.
Vibha Singh, the principal who is also the senior vice president of the Nagar Nigam Shikshak Sangh, pointed out that some students were disappointed and saddened when they did not find their favourite teacher in school — either transferred or out on some other duty.
“The first day was basically about introductions,” said Vibha. “For many it was like their first day in school. And the shift back from online classes to physical classes came with its own set of problems, as much for the students as for the teachers”.
According to Mamta, student discipline, controlling students who wanted to talk to others, not having all the books and note books, were what the teachers would have to deal with for a few weeks. “Some students miss their smart phones a lot”, she remarked.
The declining number of COVID cases and death rates, the rising numbers of vaccinations, and above all the findings of the latest serosurvey that said 97% of people in Delhi had developed antibodies, are among the factors that emboldened the government to decide to reopen schools.
“But if things slip out of our hands, we will close the schools again,” said Manish Sisodia, deputy chief and education minister. “Adherence to COVID protocols is part of the teaching, the lessons,” he told the media after visiting a school in Mayur Vihar in East Delhi on November 1st.
“Teachers and parents have to decide on whether they can follow the relevant protocols, and if they can, they should reopen,” added Sisodia who visited over half a dozen schools on that day. “We cannot take any risk with the health of children, but we also cannot take too much risk with the future of the students”.
Sisodia kept asking children randomly if they would want to continue with the online classes, and found that not a single student wanted that. They all wanted to get back to school.
But schools are mandated to go hybrid, which teachers found very challenging. “We cannot teach in the class rooms, and stay after school timings to teach online,” said one teacher on condition of anonymity. “So for now we have not begun teaching online.”
Principal Vibha Singh said she had curtailed the 40-minute period to 30 minutes for online classes, and told teachers to conduct one online period before students enter their classrooms. The system is time consuming given the checks when students leave the classroom. “There is a little bit of adjustment to be made. Most schools are doing it like this.”
Readjustment, a work in progress
Teachers who doubled as frontline workers to deal with the pandemic are all vaccinated, but the preparation on the part of the government schools goes way beyond the vaccination, and has been particularly demanding.
Many schools also have space doubling up as vaccination centres and ration distribution points. The guidelines of the DDMA require clear demarcation and separation of these areas from the rest of the school.
In some schools, this has been difficult to achieve. “It is work in progress,” said a teacher of a school in East Delhi. “We may even shift the ration point and the vaccination point from our school if necessary.” The government is counting on support from parents to make this reopening of schools a success. Taking to Twitter, it has appealed to parents “to have confidence, and keep engaging with their children on a regular basis, to inspire and motivate them that studies are important as is their safety.”