Saturday, 4 December, 2021

Challenge Of Reopening Schools

Uttam Maharjan

Schools have remained closed since March 18 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even examinations were postponed. This has affected millions of students across the country. They are worried about their studies. The current academic year, which should have started in Baisakh, has not got off the ground, albeit some schools have started online classes and conducted online examinations, too.

It is known to all that the COVID-19 pandemic has been wreaking havoc across the world since late December 2019. The COVID-19 cases are surging in the country with over 220,000 infections and over 1,300 deaths. Amid such a health crisis, the government has recently come up with the School Operation Framework-2020 in the context of COVID-19. The framework has been issued to facilitate teaching-learning activities in less affected areas so as to give relief to students and their guardians. It is not, however, mandatory for all schools to reopen. As per the framework, the local governments are authorised to reopen schools under their jurisdiction after properly taking stock of the COVID-19 situation in their areas and ensuring that a particular school or schools are safe to run.
However, it is not easy to reopen schools. First of all, school management committees are required to hold meetings with stakeholders - guardians, education activists, local clubs and leaders. If all the stakeholders agree to reopen schools, then the schools can be reopened. After the stakeholders’ consent, permission needs to be obtained from local governments. The local governments, in turn, have to coordinate with district disaster management centres to get approval. And the district disaster management centres study the obtaining situation and see to it that schools can be reopened in a safe environment. If the situation is favourable, then permission will be given to the local governments to reopen schools.
Schools should take all necessary precautionary measures, including safety and public health measures, in accordance with the guidelines on the same issued by local, state and federal governments. The framework accentuates the safety of students, protection of students, teachers and school staff from the COVID-19 pandemic and smooth teaching-learning activities.
The schools that were used as quarantine or isolation facilities during the lockdowns have to be disinfected before running the schools. The framework lays emphasis on health protocol so schools should ensure safety measures. For this, a quarantine or isolation rooms needs to be set up on the school premises itself. And one teacher, preferably a health or science teacher, needs to be appointed as the focal person for the management of COVID-19.
Unlike under normal circumstances, schools can adopt flexible modalities of teaching. They can conduct different classes at different times, earmark certain days a week for certain classes or reduce the number of classes as per the situation. They are required to maintain social distancing among students as a safety measure.
School management committees are required to provide details about the number of students, the number of teachers, physical infrastructure, sanitation, health protocol adopted and the like. Principals are assigned the responsibility for monitoring teachers and staff for COVID-19, while teachers are required to monitor students. And local governments are required to monitor schools.
In case the situation gets worse with cases increasing or more and more people being at risk, local governments can direct schools to shut down in line with the guidelines on safety and public health issued by state and federal governments after consulting with district disaster management centres. However, teaching-learning activities will have to be continued with alternative method as per the Student Learning Facilitation Directive 2077. After the situation has come back to normal, the schools can be opened again but all the procedures regarding reopening of schools as set forth in the framework need to be followed ab initio.
The framework has also provision for conducting stalled exams. SEE exams were not conducted this time; rather, the students were given marks on the basis of internal assessment. But all other exams will have to be conducted. While conducting exams, schools are bound to follow the guidelines on safety and public health issued by local, state and federal governments. While conducting plus two exams, the guideline issued by the National Exam Board should also be abided by.
All three levels of government have a pivotal role to play in reopening schools but the role of local governments is all the more important. Local governments have responsibility, along with schools, for making preparations for reopening schools, enrolling students, managing teaching-learning activities and conducting postponed exams, among others. Local governments are to ensure that safety protocol is strictly followed, for which they need to continuously monitor schools.
As only five months remain of this academic year, both local governments and schools need to make preparations for resuming classes in no time. The schools which are conducting online classes may not be in a quagmire when it comes to completing courses but those not able to adopt an alternative mode of teaching-learning activities may be hard pressed to complete courses. As not all students are blessed with technology, online classes have not been effective. That is why the government has issued the framework to conduct physical classes.

Crunch of human resources
Therefore, the local governments are hard pressed to take the initiative in reopening schools across the country. All the 753 local levels are authorised to reopen schools. Whether they will be able to reopen schools as per the framework is still in the womb of time as they face crunch of human resources and time is running out fast. However, the sooner schools are reopened, the better.

(Former banker, Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000.