Reopening of Schools in Meghalaya – its implications!

S Maxwell Lyngdoh
Meghalaya received direction from the Education Department, Government of Meghalaya through its Notification No.EDN.40/2020/69, dated August 26, 2021, on School Opening from September 1, 2021. The opening of Schools will be from Classes 6 to 12 for rural schools and Classes 9 to 12 for urban schools. It would be inappropriate to comment if this is a right or wrong decision for the State at the moment. As of today’s data, (August 29, 2021), the total number of active cases in the State is 2636 and 1363 in East Khasi Hills District alone – fairly high for a small State as Meghalaya.
The COVID-19 unlock process have started in several States across India, especially with Schools having been shut for more than a year now. All the schools have been opened briefly for some time and closed again when the cases increased. Schools have adopted online education as a mode of study causing a massive transformation in the education sector. However, reopening schools in offline mode seem necessary because of various reasons related to students’ academic performances and overall well-being. The school reopening decision were made voluntarily by the States.

  1. Rural Schools:
    The transition may not be as simple as we would have anticipated. Most rural interior schools came to a complete stand by since 2020. The dropout rates are yet to surface. In fact, the reopening of schools in rural Meghalaya will at the same time showcase many situations that have been wrapped for some time now. Increasing teenage pregnancy is one common scenario witnessed across. Another scenario, are our young ones getting into some kind of earning mode which is unlikely for them to join schools again even after it resumes.
    On the other hand, there are also those groups who are just waiting for schools to reopen – to get the sense of normalcy and that everything is back to where things used to be. According to UNESCO, India’s 3.2 million students have experienced the world’s fifth-longest school lockdown and these children are at the risk of falling behind due to the school closure and many may have already dropped out and may never return to the education system. In view of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s education, the Right to Education Forum, a platform of national education networks aimed to achieve the goal of equitable and quality education for all children, has demanded the reopening of schools. Statistics suggest that 64 per cent of rural kids fear they will drop out without additional support to cope with the learning gaps.
    To achieve this, the RTE Forum has put forth 13-point demands. These are points that have repeatedly been addressed in many forums, meets, academic discussions and so on. Should we say, ‘thanks to the pandemic’ because it has helped in bringing forth these issues, especially in relation to the digital divide in the country? The pointers laid down by the Forum include addressing the emerging digital divide to respond to the educational needs of India’s poor, including tribal children, girls, COVID-19 orphans; developing a long-term policy on ‘Education in Emergencies’ to ensure readiness for future crises; protecting children from abuse, trafficking, child marriage; and placing a moratorium on private schools hiking their fees during the pandemic.
  2. How ready is Meghalaya?
    As much as we are all convinced that the reopening of schools is a step that has been delayed, the question still remains whether the State is ready to face this challenge. The Statistics shows that out of the total population in Meghalaya, 211780 got both the dozes while 891093 got only the first dose. 25613 of the Health Care Workers (HCW) and 66104 of the Front-Line Workers (FLW) got the second doze respectively.
    If we are to analyse, once the schools reopen, who are the ones who would be exposed to the virus directly or indirectly? Certainly, people from all walks of life will be out there to ensure that their children are well-protected. From school teachers to school staff, from maids and helpers to pick and drop the kids to school, and in many cases both parents. There is a direct implication of increasing number of taxis and buses and cars to cater to this crowd and of course roads and footpaths packed with the people plying them. Small shops, tea stalls, food joints, stationery shops outside the school premises would be crowded which will eventually lead to a lot of socializing amongst the parents, the drivers, the students and the list go on… With a very less percentage of people being vaccinated in the State and in the East Khasi Hills District, I leave it to the reader’s fine sense of judgement to predict its consequences.
    In other words, the reopening of schools also implies the opening of the whole city and those waiting to be affected are our old folks who are at the receiving end at our homes. Vaccination in the State is extremely slow, so also the mobilization for the same. There is a decent percentage of people in the State who has not received a single dose till date – some out of choice, some because of various reasons related to their beliefs and are hesitant. This calls for more proactive steps by the authorities to engage mobilization initiatives in order to be able to convince the masses to get themselves protected.
  3. Adapting to the new setup:
    School environment refers to the set of relationships that occur among members of a school community that are determined by structural, personal, and functional factors of the educational institution, which provide distinctiveness to schools. The school environment is an important factor when evaluating student well-being. Previous findings have shown that variables such as physical, academic, and social dimensions influence school environments. During the past phase, student’s learning levels may have been impacted drastically. The pattern of education will change in terms of assessments, alternate schooling days, prohibition in sharing of notebooks, food items, limited breaks and changes of class timings will disrupt smooth learning.
    Off late, social media are already flooded with text and posters hinting that the students are going to venture into a journey very soon, something that is quite unfamiliar to them and how should they behave etc. Amongst this group, there are also those students who are feeling a sense of inferiority and embarrassment because their parents have not been able to pay their fees which is up-to-date. There are others who have lost their near and dear ones and who are still in the grieving period. For students, who have lost the earning members in the family, their future is filled with uncertainty – as to whether they should continue with their schooling and if yes, who would meet their expenses.
    It may be worth mentioning that more than the craze to rush for reopening schools, maintaining protocols and ensuring that SOPs are met, mental health support and counselling should also be given utmost importance to such vulnerable kids – who do not require any academic support at the moment but moral support, social support and reassurance. Children/teenagers who are known to not opening up at home and or to family members tend to seek an outlet to vent out their grievances/feelings of discomfort to friends and teachers whom they are close to or to someone who reaches out to them as school counsellors and others.
    In conclusion, it may be stated that we are all going through this crucial time. We have witnessed an endless number of difficulties and coping issues by elders and learned individuals. This only means to suggest that we need to be more vigilant and mindful of our actions, in particular with our young ones as we are making decisions on their behalf. The reopening of schools this time has invited constructive discussions and debates – both negative and positive. While hoping for the best outcome of this step, we also pray that people from all walks of life will take up the vaccine to not only protect themselves and their families but the community at large.
    May we be reminded time and again that we still have a long way to go to completely eradicate this virus from the region. Socializing actually makes us forget to maintain distance, be it from our known ones or our acquaintances.
    (The writer can be reached at maxwell.lyngdoh@gmail.com)