Friday, 3 December, 2021

COVID-19 Leaves Children In Dilemma

Balmukunda Regmi


There is a popular saying - bhavishyaka karnadhar – which figuratively means future of nation and is often referred to the young people. The need of education for children and the fear of contracting COVID-19 have left us in a dilemma. All the stakeholders, including schools, guardians, teachers and students, are worried about such a situation. Attempts with distant and online teaching/learning methods have become successful partially. Imparting education in physical presence with cleanliness, divided shifts and maintenance of safe physical distance is easier said than done. Schools are well aware of the fact that such a provision is not implementable considering the size of classrooms, number of teachers and capacity of school buses. This is more so when it comes to small children’s inability to mix up with fellow kids and to use masks properly.
In 2020, the shutdown of schools was a global phenomenon. We had a feeling that closures were not for us alone. Now the situation is different. Chinese schools are running as usual though foreign students are not allowed to return to China. Most of other countries have fully or partially opened their schools.
Reopening schools
Nepal is among few countries that cannot open schools at the moment. Such a situation makes us feel isolated. Failure to reopen schools and conduct teaching/ learning activities in physical presence may force the affluent families to send their children to rich countries where the coronavirus has been contained and schools have reopened, fueling inequality in the access to education. Also noteworthy is that the kids going abroad are such a group that has better access to online education. Those most impacted by school closures are kids of basically illiterate parents with low socio-economic status, living in remote areas.
Ensuring security, health and education of kids is a must to reduce poverty and graduate the country to the status of a developing nation by 2026. This is also a constitutional responsibility of the state. It is wise to embrace the global agenda launched by UNICEF in April 2020 for action to protect the most vulnerable children from harm. The six pillars of the agenda include keeping children healthy and safe, providing vulnerable children with water, sanitation and hygiene, encouraging children to learn, supporting families to cover their needs and care for their children, protect children from violence, exploitation and abuse and safeguarding refugee and migrant children, and those affected by conflict.
The view that children are less vulnerable to COVID-19 is quite misleading. In Nepali context, the nature of the virus has been changing and becoming more threatening to young population with emergence of newer variants in the first place. Secondly, there is a more fundamental point we are missing, as put by O'Leary, vice chair of the Committee on Infectious Diseases for the American Academy of Pediatrics, because child fatalities are not common. The number of pediatric deaths related to COVID-19 would put the virus in the top-10 causes of death among children.
Obviously, schools should be reopened as early as possible. In Nepal, students have been promoted to a higher grade amidst disruptions of regular physical classes. This should not be considered as a success of our education system.
A 2018 report of the Reboot Foundation has answered the following questions: “What frequency or length of exposure to technology is most effective in the classroom?” They used two large achievement data sets. The first one was the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which evaluates student achievement in over 90 countries. The second data set was the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a national assessment known in the U.S. as “the Nation’s Report Card.”
One of the observations they have reported is of particular significance. Students in France who reported using the internet in schools for a few minutes to a half-hour every day scored 13 points higher on the PISA reading assessment as compared to those who reported spending no time on the internet in school. However, students in France who reported spending any more than half an hour on the internet every day consistently scored lower than their peers who reported spending less than half an hour. In fact, those students who used the internet for more than six hours a day scored almost 140 points lower on the PISA reading assessment than the students who reported spending “1-30 minutes” on the internet every day.
The upgrading of students without real achievement of competencies may cause irreparable damage to them. Meanwhile, our students have missed an important component of school education– socialising. Our schools have to work hard to compensate for the past weakness. To ensure that the society will have an uninterrupted supply of competent human resources in the future, we should resume physical classes, extracurricular activities and interactions among students.

Vaccination for students
Now some brands like Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine have been found safe for children above 12 years. Nepal should try to get such jabs for the eligible students. Such a move not only protects the students but also helps reduce community transmission, get the country as close as possible to herd immunity and allow adults and children alike to get back to their pre-pandemic lives. All the options sans reopening of schools with adequate safety measures, including vaccination of teachers and eligible students, may fail to protect students and their education.

(Regmi is a professor of pharmacy at Tribhuvan University.