Yangchen C Rinzin 

While the reopening of schools is uncertain, the health ministry has announced conditions that the schools must meet.

The requirements are prepared as per the risk assessment based on contact intensity, a number of contacts and modification potential.

A school must maintain enough physical distance among students, enough ventilation in the classrooms, modify the class size, and class time.

While the ministry of education has also prepared for different scenarios, with the increasing number of cases in the neighbouring states in India, many people question if the schools should reopen any time soon?

The education ministry has prepared options on how to reopen the schools based on low, medium and high-risk areas. For instance, one way is to first open only high schools and those schools in remote areas or open schools from class VII and above.

However, many principals and teachers say these conditions may not be easy to implement especially in public schools.

While some shared that maybe, it was time to cope up with the conditions and reopen schools, as Bhutan still does not have local transmission.

Health minister Dechen Wangmo in the recent press conference said that when the schools or any institutions reopen the three conditions are mandatory apart from installing Druk Trace application, WASH facilities, and regular awareness and advocacy on Covid-19.

“There shouldn’t be any activities of large gatherings like concerts or morning prayers, and students should not gather inside the multipurpose hall,” Lyonpo said.

“There should be regular screening, restrict visitors, rearrangement of any hostels or dining halls to maintain physical distance.”

Another condition is schools or institutions must have a Covid-19 focal person who would be responsible for reporting on any case to the health ministry directly. The schools also must have rooms assigned for quarantine in case of an outbreak and even an isolation room.

“We’ve submitted the requirements to the ministry. However, the reopening of school will depend on the government’s decision, and health ministry just has to ensure these are implemented,” Lyonpo said.

Many teachers expressed that given the school settings, ensuring physical distancing would be the biggest challenge.

Teachers said that the majority of the schools lack infrastructure to accommodate normal class strength, and each class at least have more than 30 students.

All the schools and educational institutions were closed since March 6 when Bhutan received the first positive Covid-19 case.

One of the teachers from Paro said that while they understand the reopening of schools is essential given the requirements it would be almost impossible to reopen.

“Maybe, we can accommodate about 15 students in a classroom but where do I send the rest of the students,” a principal said. “Maybe, the schools can come up with temporary or makeshifts, but this would cause huge budgetary implications and procurement hassles.”

Many were of the view that the government could open only higher secondary schools, especially students who have to sit for the board exam. A few also said both the ministries and government should also consult school management to understand the ground reality.

“We can enhance, reinforce and add assessment component to the eLearning programme to assess rest of the students,” a teacher in Wangduephodrang said.

Teachers said that although schools without Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) facilities are receiving the materials, there is a need for a proper study on the water source.

“There are many schools in the remote or even in urban areas that have a shortage of proper water supply or water sources,” a teacher in Punakha said. “How can we manage such facilities overnight?”

Another teacher in Zhemgang said that the school was already under pressure from additional enrollment in Pre-Primary this year. Minimising the class size or dining hall would be a hassle.

“The lunch breaks for about an hour, and if we’re to maintain distance, time would be consumed. The current dining hall in our school accommodates only 50 percent of the students, how do we maintain the physical distance?”

A teacher in Trashigang said teaching in shifts would only compromise the quality of education and teaching-learning would not be effective.

“Physical distancing will be difficult when school is all about crowding. The sole purpose would be defeated when students break for recess, and all will be using the same toilets.”

A few suggested to open schools only for Class X and above and then accommodate them in the hostels, especially in boarder schools, which would be manageable.