NEW DELHI - The move to reopen schools in India has hit a setback following reports of hundreds of Covid-19 cases among teachers as well as children in recent weeks in some states, including Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Mizoram.
This has prompted states to either shut schools again or further delay their opening. Schools were shut across the country in March and reopening them remains a priority, as states are keen to ensure children, who are not able to study online, do not miss out further on their education.
It was only in September that the government decided to allow schools to reopen from Oct 15 in a gradual manner based on the local situation. But many states have yet to do so, as they walk a tightrope between ensuring access to education and maintaining safety for schoolchildren and staff.
In Himachal Pradesh's Mandi district, where schools reopened earlier this month, more than 100 teachers and nearly 80 students have been infected with Covid-19. A residential school for Tibetans reported 99 cases, of which around 70 were students.
"The main concern is that children are minors and one may not expect them to exercise the same level of precaution as adults," Mr Rugved Milind Thakur, deputy commissioner for Mandi district, told The Straits Times.
"There are protocols in place (for schools to function amid the pandemic) and there should not be any problem if these are followed. But there is always the possibility that someone turns positive with the kind of spread that is there. An odd instance is okay but we should not have large-scale outbreaks," he added.
While the pandemic's growth in India has slowed in recent weeks, there are fears of a second wave of infection. The country has over 8.6 million confirmed cases in total.
States have come up with standard operating procedures to try and ensure there is no outbreak at schools. Common measures include regular sanitisation of premises, mandatory wearing of masks and spaced-out seating in classrooms.
But the spike in cases at schools has highlighted deficiencies in implementing these rules, prompting other states to go slow. Odisha last week put on hold a decision to reopen schools after Nov 15.
In Tamil Nadu, a government decision to allow schools and colleges to reopen from Nov 16 generated widespread opposition from parents. A report on online news portal The News Minute said the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court, while hearing a petition against the government order, recommended on Wednesday (Nov 11) that educational institutions reopen after next month.
Covid-19 cases have also been reported in Andhra Pradesh, with local media saying as many as 829 teachers and 575 students, all from government high schools, have tested positive after schools reopened on Nov 2.
In Uttarakhand's Pauri Garhwal district, more than 80 teachers from around 20 different schools tested positive this month. But district chief education officer Madan Singh Rawat said no Covid-19 cases had been reported among schoolchildren yet. The schools were shut for five days as a precaution and have since reopened.
In Mizoram too, schools were shut a few days after they reopened last month following reports of cases among schoolchildren.
"The problem with children being infected in schools is that they can spread the infection widely into the community when they return to their homes," Dr Pachuau Lalmalsawma, the spokesman and state nodal officer for Covid-19, told The Straits Times. There is no certainty when they may reopen.
Many other states are yet to finalise dates for reopening schools. While schools are demanding that they be allowed to reopen, especially so that they can catch up on the syllabus ahead of key exams for senior grades, there are many parents who feel that schools should not be reopened even though attendance remains voluntary and preference given to online education.
"Even if 10 out of 40 children go to school, there is a certain pressure that is created on others to go," said Mr Arif Khan, the president of National Association for Parents and Students Rights.
The organisation has written to the government asking it to shut down schools and continue with online education.
"We should not be playing with our children's lives. There should be no laxity till a vaccine is found," he added, suggesting that the government instead declare this year as a "zero academic year" during which no academic activities or exams are conducted.