A surge in cases in schools and colleges should be prevented using a ‘test-trace-isolate’ model
The University Grants Commission has published a revised academic calendar for 2020-21, under which classes can be started for first year undergraduate and postgraduate students from November 1, but the prospects of a normalised regime of education remain far from clear. In a circular that factors in the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, the UGC has offered institutions the option of offline, online or blended modes of instruction. For school education, many States have allowed reopening for Classes 9 and above from September 21, based on the Centre’s instructions for the unlock phase. These measures, with their semblance of normality, may bring some relief to parents, but their outcomes are not predictable. That becomes clear from the experience of the U.S. and the U.K.: there is apprehension among parents, teachers and staff that they may get infected, and governments are under greater pressure to test, trace and isolate in communities with schools and colleges. A U.S. study in pre-print, conducted by four educational institutions after students returned to in-person classes, showed that infections for counties with campuses rose by 3,000 a day over the median value. Another estimate for virus cases linked to school reopening, made by other researchers, put the figure at over 21,000; college cases in the U.S. exceeded 88,000. In Britain, teachers’ unions voiced deep concern over poor preparedness ahead of school reopening in September. The government’s guidance there included a rotation system for students, and compulsory face masks in contact areas.
India’s move to unlock education coincides with a reported reduction in overall daily incidence of infection, although absolute numbers are frighteningly high. If the UGC’s campus calendar is implemented as planned, it would require a high level of commitment among States to do what countries such as Germany, Denmark and Norway have done: provide free RT-PCR testing and pursue contact tracing where students test positive. Yet, some State governments seem to be focused on managing the numbers rather than the pandemic, slashing overall testing rates, and inflating test numbers using less reliable rapid antigen tests to reduce positivity rates. This approach is fraught, and the consequences of statistical illusions could prove disastrous. Students have, no doubt, experienced a long summer of discontent, with just the option of online classes; the examination schedule and admissions systems were severely disrupted. But it is also true that many of them live in multi-generational households, potentially bringing home the risk of infection to older, at-risk individuals. Unlock for schools and colleges can, therefore, be seen only as a work in progress, requiring constant vigil, strict adherence to masking and distancing, and full access to testing and treatment. The government’s messaging cannot carry conviction if it cautions the public about the pandemic on the one hand, while relaxing norms for campus activity on the other.