MUMBAI: When Aaryan Arole first heard that his school might reopen after all, the first thing he did was yank out his uniform, locked down for eighteen months. “I can’t wait to meet my friends and teachers, play football and eat from the cafeteria. Even the thought of boarding my school bus feels exciting!” says the class ten student of Dr. Pillai Global Academy. Except for one problem. The uniform of this 15-year-old who was 13 when schools shut down in March last year, no longer fits. That’s led to another conundrum. “I’ve grown a few inches taller and suddenly everything is small. I hope the school allows casuals for the rest of the year.”
While kids like Aaryan are ready to stir out of their pandemic bunker with a brave smile and brand new backpacks, many parents aren’t. As families prepare for a return to in-person learning for classes 8 to 12 from Monday, run-of-the-mill worries have been overtaken by fresh concerns, leaving parents of students — from preschool to high school — more anxious than usual.
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Though some are ready to handle the transition to a more stable, interactive learning environment for their child trapped in a screen for more than a year, the possibility that their kid might get infected while sharing a school bus or getting too close to their classmates during assembly, games and lunch hour, are challenges that pandemic-wary parents are finding hard to shrug off.
“I’m not hot about the return, especially because there’s been a rise in cases among children. And there’s still no definite vaccination plan for minors,” says Ashish Banerjee, father of a class nine boy from Peddar Road.
Even as schools scramble to figure ways to help remote learners reacclimate to physical classrooms with SOPs on how children will be seated, shepherded or taught through a hybrid model of in-person and online classes, putting brakes on a child’s impulses can be a task. “Getting kids to follow an orderly route to and from class, canteen or washroom may become more difficult during lunch and toilet breaks,” worries Banerjee.
Sutapa Bhagat, coordinator for EuroKids and mum to a class eight child, can’t help but fret about kids playing hooky to make up for days lost in lockdown. “With one batch in school and another at home, won’t maintaining two attendance registers be a challenge? What if some kids decide to naughtily skip school. Parents may think they’re in class and teachers might believe they’re at home!” she ponders, adding how staggered start times and rotational routines would throw working parents out of gear.
Another stumbling block for parents is healthcare protocol for children who test positive for Covid. “There’s no talk about whether there will be a special helpline for cases or if schools should have a proper infirmary,” says Banerjee.
The decision regarding reopening of schools for junior classes will come through after the festive season but anxiety has been several notches higher among parents of primary school children — especially those making the more difficult transition of going to a school for the first time.
Jimit Shah, whose eldest started primary school in 2019 worries about how his son will cope in a classroom environment. “Although he’s in grade 2, he’s only been to online school. We as parents have always been around at home to help when he couldn’t keep pace.” Amrita Roy who would sit through every online class with her 10-year-old isn’t sure how much her daughter will pick up instructions from the teacher. “I hope teachers slow down for kids to adjust,” she says.
Pratham Education Foundation, an NGO that works with schools across India has been running a readiness campaign for young children and parents across 10,000 villages and urban communities across India to help mothers of primary kids with bridging exercises in the run up to formal schooling. “Children from rural areas or low income urban families who have not been through any formal education or online access are now in class one or two,” says Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham, stressing on the need for schools and parents to get together before schools formally open. “To alleviate fears and plan transition and safety measures more effectively.”
To understand return-to anxieties among stakeholders of pre and primary schoolers, the Early Childhood Association (ECA) and Association of Primary Education and Research surveyed 500 parents that revealed many did not agree on what the safest method might be. If fathers seemed more open to coping with the risks, mothers were anxious about the impending ‘third wave’ and lack of pediatric covid care facilities.
“It’s imperative that we help parents and teachers acknowledge their anxiety and help them talk about it. Children have mirror neurons and if the two most important stakeholders of their care are anxious, they too will feel stressed. That in turn will affect their ability to remember rules. It will also affect their immune system,” said ECA president Swati Popat Vats.
Whether or not they trust the school to keep their children safe, many parents who couldn’t wait to send their children back to the classroom are now willing to wait and watch. “Just last week two children of my daughter’s age living in our building started showing Covid symptoms. We’re not out of the pandemic yet so why this knee jerk reaction halfway through the academic year?” asks Shyam Hari, a seafaring father of a class eight girl, refusing to give the school his consent.
But even as such disputes play out, parents like Aaryan’s realize that virtual learning and ad-hoc arrangements are no replacement for the classroom experience. “Especially when they’re losing out on the last few precious days of school. I trust the institution to take enough care and my son to follow precautions for him to go back to what is usually the most memorable phase in one’s life,” insists his father Sagar Arole.