Reopening Schools: Challenges & Solutions

The most critical condition for opening up an educational campus is ensuring safe practices within the premises.

When the lockdown was first imposed, the switch to digital learning was the only way to ensure uninterrupted learning. However, as normalcy slowly returns, one of the most critical decisions facing educational institutions today is whether or not to reopen their campuses. While some institutions have already asked students to join, some have decided to wait till the new session starts. Still others are, as yet, undecided, preferring to take a wait-and-watch approach.

Clearly, there is no perfect time to reopen that can be applied uniformly to all educational institutions. The decision to start normal operations must be based on the prevailing circumstances in different parts of the country. The phased approach towards opening up campuses will depend on the number of cases in the local region, the capacity to deal with COVID cases in the local area/city/state, vaccine distribution, government policies and other risks associated with the pandemic.

But, with the decision now becoming critical, it is worthwhile to understand the risks to bear in mind for resuming campus classes. Identifying these risks and preparing for them will help educational institutions in executing a smooth and problem-free campus reopening.

Risk of COVID cases: One of the overriding concerns with reopening of campuses is contagion. The easing of lockdown restrictions has brought normalcy with many people now moving about freely. However, we have recently seen an uptick in infections in Mumbai, that is being attributed, at least partially, to the resumption of local trains. Another reason that has been advanced is the negligence of the public in following basic protective guidelines. As campuses open up, students are more likely to resume their natural social interactions, and may grow careless in adhering to COVID precautions. This raises the risk of outbreaks on campus, and is important to mitigate as multiple cases may result in the building being sealed, which may cause learning disruptions and additional anxiety in students.

Increased costs: The most critical condition for opening up an educational campus is ensuring safe practices within the premises. All institutions are required to to follow SOPs such as provision of hand sanitisers, arranging for social distancing, and disinfection of common/public areas. Consequently, schools will need to invest in protective equipment such as PPE kits, masks, COVID-compliant cleaning supplies, and in installing high-powered filters on ventilation systems. All these can add up to substantial costs for the school.

Mental health risks: The health scare due to COVID, and the protracted lockdown, has created a widespread impact on the mental wellbeing of people across the world, including students. A US study of university students found that 71 per cent of respondents reported increased stress and anxiety during the lockdown period. While the opening up of schools may provide some relief from the issues caused by prolonged physical distancing and lack of social interactions, the increased exposure also intensifies the risk of contracting the virus. Anxiety over one’s health, as well as that of one’s family, may witness a spike, with students now leaving home to attend physical classes.

Reduced attention span in classrooms: With the lockdown having lasted for close to a year now, many students have become used to the new normal, as far as online learning is concerned. Students returning to campus now may find themselves constrained as they readjust to classroom teaching.

Reduced productivity: However alien a given situation may seem at first, human nature allows us to adapt to it eventually. While many teachers initially found online teaching to be challenging, by now, most have adapted to new methods. There were several advantages in conducting classes from the comfort of home, such as avoiding traffic, and saving time on commute. As schools open up, a return to the previous routine is bound to create some discomfort for the first few days, which may impact the productivity of faculty members.

Reduced enrollments: While institutions are now ready to reopen, the fear of COVID-19 is still widely prevalent. Colleges in the US have already seen the impact of the pandemic with a sharp drop in college enrolments. The same pattern may be repeated in India as students stay away for safety concerns. Students, who might have earlier opted for higher education in a city away from home, may now opt to enroll in an institute that does not require them to live elsewhere. In schools, especially at the primary level, some parents may even prefer to have their children drop a year rather than risk exposing them to infection.

Lower attendance: Many institutes are following a staggered schedule for students where only 50% of the batch is in attendance. With many students reluctant to attend physical classes, attendance is likely to be even lower. Many outstation students had gone back to their hometowns prior to the lockdown, and may not want to move back despite the partial easing of restrictions, preferring instead to continue with online classes.

Easy Solutions for Reopening

- Strict compliance with COVID safety norms, including sanitisation of common areas, and wearing of masks by students, staff, and faculty at all times.

- Establishing frequent and transparent communication channels. All safety-related protocols must be communicated daily and frequently through notices, announcements, mails, and other means.

- Physical distancing should be imposed through various means, such as inviting students in batches so that the classroom is never full. Staggered lunchtimes can help prevent crowding in common areas.

- Ensure proper circulation of air in indoor spaces through open windows or high-powered filters on ventilation systems.

- Strict policies should be enforced, requiring visitors to come to the campus by invitation only.

- Emphasise the importance of staying home when sick.

- Ensure adequate availability of healthcare personnel on campus, including mental health counsellors.

- A contingency plan must be kept ready in the event that an infection is reported on the campus.

- Constitute a COVID task force ASAP. This team will handle all related matters, including communications.

- Set up a risk management function to identify, assess, and mitigate enterprise-wide risks. Recruiting an IRM-qualified risk professional could be a good way to start. We have many educators / faculty members who have completed the IRM exams and gone on to become the risk heads of their respective schools.

As we go forward, education methodology is expected to undergo yet another iteration. While online learning has many advantages, such as access to wider academic resources, easy availability of study material, the flexibility of study schedule, innovative pedagogical tools, and the ease of collaborating with peers and faculty, it can never completely replace classrooms that allow in-person interaction and stimulation. Hence, blended learning, where both offline and online formats combine seamlessly for effective delivery, will most likely be the preferred method of teaching in the future.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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