No other sector has suffered disruptions as much as education. Schools have remained closed for a long time—since March 2020. Adjustments had to be made for students of Classes X and XII. When positive cases emerged in Phuentsholing and Gelephu, students from some schools in the south of the country had to be transferred to schools in safer dzongkhags. Online or e-learning, our immediate response after the closure of schools, continues to be a formidable challenge for both teachers and students. It is against this backdrop that the education ministry’s decision to reopen schools, early childhood care and development, non-formal education, and community learning centres across the country is welcome. But the ministry must also guarantee a robust system to ensure safety on the campus and classrooms.
We are told that the ministry now has a plan and guidelines developed to reopen the schools. What does this all mean, though? Schools will adopt strict health and safety measures such as compulsory wearing of face masks on the campus at all times. Physical distancing will be maintained and there will be adequate handwashing stands. The ministry has also asked schools to come up with their own idea to better implement these measures and other safety protocols. All these are absolutely necessary but a question lingers still: Will these be enough to guarantee total safety? Challenges are many and the answer is “no”.
Some school administrations have said that they would ensure that boarders and day scholars do not mix. This will be challenging even with the strictest of monitoring. How will, for example, physical distancing be possible in a class of close to 40 students? Creating classrooms for day scholars will demand far more resources than just extra teachers and space. Parents are worried and rightly so. They feel it may be a little too early to reopen schools. The argument is that the schools were closed when there weren’t local transmission of Covid-19 and the ministry deciding to reopen the school when cases of community transmission of virus, particularly in Thimphu, looks and sounds ill-advised at best.
Thankfully vaccines have started arriving in the country but it will be a long time before the vaccination programme will be rolled out. Not to forget that inoculation programmes are generating debate and resistance among the people elsewhere. With the decision to reopen schools for the academic session 2021, the ministry and the school administrations must commit to ensure safety on campus. The danger is that falling any short has the potential to be vastly dangerous.