Capt. Rohit Sen Bajaj, Director, Pathways School, Gurgaon

Capt. Rohit Sen Bajaj, a seasoned, and passionate educator, a dynamic communicator, an effective administrator and a self- motivated individual sees a career spanning over 25 years. A progressive and enthusiastic personality, with a flair for mentoring and coaching. As a natural leader, Rohit’s vision is to impart holistic education and create a powerful impact on today’s generation. Having served in the Indian Army for 5 years prior to his calling into the world of education, Rohit has an impeccable sense of commitment, duty, and responsibility. Armed with a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry, Master’s in History, Bachelor’s in Education amongst others. Rohit’s education career started with the Doon school going on to serve his alma mater the Lawrence School Sanawar.

 

The world desperately wants the young ones to regain and enjoy their freedom to meet their friends, teachers and learn in a physical classroom while not being concerned about the consequences. Over the period of last two years, with the ebbing away of the Covid 19 pandemic, schools have learnt to be adaptive, resourceful, much more resilient to combat the unprecedented circumstances created by the contagion. Much information has been floated around about the practices institutions should follow while considering reopening during the looming pandemic. To gather new insights, one must assess the existing practices in place. This article seeks to address the challenges faced by schools and the special considerations to bear in mind when formulating its reopening strategy.

Ensuring the health and safety of students as well as staff members is one of the biggest challenges institutions need to address. For it only can form the basis of any successful opening strategy. Many experts believe that the physical opening of schools have a high probability of spreading the coronavirus unless preventive measures are put in place. Such a spread could even lead to immediate cessation of physical classes. This “one step forwards, two steps backwards” situation could fan anxiety and doubts among parents, students, and teachers regarding schools’ ability to handle the situation.

In addition to the general risks faced by the public, there are certain critical concerns unique to schools and school-going children. Primary amongst these is that students, particularly those in junior classes, can be indolent and ignorant in strictly adhering to the Covid prevention practices. For instance, students may not wear masks properly, neglect to sanitize themselves appropriately or adhere to social distancing norms. Schools would need to give due regard to such factors instead of following general reopening norms observed by most corporates and other such adult-centric institutions.

Here are some of the factors which the school authorities need to consider while formulating a reopening strategy. These include being cognizant of the local ground realities and current statistics such as the number of active cases, infection rate, etc. If the surrounding circumstances do not favour the reopening. In that case, schools must act likewise; else it might prove critical not only to public health but also to schools’ reputation. Besides, effective communication is another factor that schools need to embrace to succeed in its reopening and planning process. Prior to reopening, the plan and proposed Covid-19 norms must be shared compellingly to prepare students and parents. The actual opening of the school plans must ensure consistent and continuous reinforcing of practices conveyed before. Schools must align their Covid protocol with those prescribed by WHO, CDC and similar agencies along with the local government regulations. Such alignments create confidence among parents.

Another factor that would prove beneficial for schools’ reopening strategy would be a mechanism for monitoring the real-time adherence to the norms and gathering data to take quick and adequate action. Apart from observing, it is equally important to create awareness amongst all stakeholders about following the set preventive norms. It can be done through sessions, virtual seminars or extensive information campaigns, including installing bold and loud signage as visual reminders in and around the building. It is important for all stakeholders to follow the set protocol, or the reopening process could become challenging.

Having said that, schools facing challenges concerning the deferring of an opening as well as convincing parents for cooperation in case of reopening need to find a way to resolve both. In the former scenario, certain schools face pressure from students and parents to open the institution as everything around is operating almost as in pre-Covid times. At the same time, some students and parents are reluctant towards the schools’ reopening plans. The need of the hour demands the schools to handle both the issue of over-enthusiasm and hesitancy with a balanced approach, effective communication and well-thought off strategy.

While constructing any plan, school administration needs to understand parents’ mindset, which may have been impacted by adverse media reporting and grim ground realities, especially those reflected during the pandemic’s onset and the deadly second wave. Loss of dear ones, which hits much closer to home, has further added to parents’ anxiety and fear about reopening schools. This fear keeps parents from accepting that conditions are heading as closer to realistic normalcy as they can in these unprecedented times. Moreover, one of the causes of hesitation among parents may also be that the vaccinations available so far have been able to establish a complete sense of trust.

Apart from parents, some students are equally hesitant to join physical classes, for they have now adapted comfortably to the virtual learning system after over a year of pandemic-induced strifes. They seem to have found a comfort zone in this new style of learning. Hence it is becoming more difficult for them to make the transition back into the physical school spaces. This is especially true for students who were not comfortable in the physical school spaces in the first place due to varied reasons and found their haven in online learning.

An emotional setback induced by prolonged lockdown and shutting of schools has wavered students’ view towards reopening of schools. There have been several instances of children growing body-conscious and developing negative body image due to long periods of inactivity at home, which impacted their health. Besides, several students who were proficient and prolific sports players felt a disconnect with their passion. The lockdown created a vacuum in their life, which impacted their mental and physical health. Along with steering a strong reopening strategy, schools also need to address these issues concerning the emotional wellbeing of students to encourage their presence in physical learning spaces through regular sessions on a positive outlook.

Besides parents and students, the school administrations are also facing reluctance from its teachers and staff members. They also hold safety concerns with regards to their and their families’ health. Hence it is imperative for school authorities to win the trust of their teachers by effectively addressing their concerns about vaccination and exposure to the virus since children joining back school are not vaccinated. Overall, schools would require to create a positive culture to gain the confidence of all is stakeholders.

During the peak trying pandemic times, virtual education emerged as a boon to keep education going in an unhinged manner. But despite its virtues and advanced features, virtual education cannot replace physical school and act as its perfect substitute. The way forward may be a hybrid model of learning, where schools offer education via both the mediums leaving the choice up to the students to accommodate those who wish to return to school as well as those who do not want to. Though implementing the hybrid leading model is an equally big challenge as schools face issues in human resource allocation. Besides, it also hinders the spirit of normalcy on a larger scale. Additionally, in the absence of physical schooling, students miss out on establishing a human connection and socialization with their peers and teachers. It is crucial for their mental, social and emotional health and holistic development. Therefore, the ultimate aim of any reopening strategy should be to gradually acclimatize parents and students to a return to school, primarily as was the scenario in pre-pandemic time, provided it is objectively safe to do so.

In summation, an effective reopening strategy rests on an honest assessment of the on-ground situation, student-centric policies, and effective communication. As long as schools do their part in keeping these as the watchwords of their reopening strategy, one can expect in the coming months a return to normalcy in a significant way – something which millions of students, teachers, and parents have been eagerly anticipating for these past two years.

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