There can be no simple thinking for the most complex question of our times – school reopening. I share my thought note with you. It is complex and complicated, stranded here, as we are, between loss of learning and loss of life, but within here somewhere lies the answer.

The worst hit are the learners who cannot access online education in some form or the other. The learning loss for them is the most, since they often need the most support, often being first generation learners. The sooner schools open, the better it is for their learning. Those who are able to access online learning would also partially benefit from schools re-opening but for them, at the very least continuity has been maintained, and at best, they have been able to engage with other skills and self directed learning that would not have been possible in a busy school calendar. Learning, we have to note, is at stake. 

The virus, of course is not mindful of the digital divide, and attacks the rich and poor alike. Despite early reports of the impact on young people being less, there are a series of reports from countries where schools have re-opened that indicate that not only are children at risk as carriers, but also the contact is a greater risk to the teachers and the elderly family members of those who gather at school. The only countries where school opening has been reasonably safe is where discipline and obedience are matched by small class sizes. Masking up, washing hands, and safe social distancing are possible in highly self disciplined environments, and most schools are certainly not known for their self disciplined students. Lives, we note again, are at stake. 

The tradeoffs that we need to negotiate for school opening are quite extreme – on one hand learning, that will impact life and livelihoods, on the other hand, life itself. As we work through the usual arguments on learning vs. life, we realise that the question cannot be as simple as: When can schools re-open. We can never go back to the old normal, exactly as it was, at least not in one swift swoop. Nor can we have one solution for all, we must grab our opportunities to school and learn wherever we can. The solution, therefore is not homogenous. It is not the big picture that matters, it is the tiny clusters of safety we must find, and resusticate for learning.

It would be wise to understand the implications of school opening by types of schools, school location according to contagion, and naturally because this is a State subject – by state, possibly by district. Sometimes by stakes, exam years, and even, I say, by weather 

The Questions: 

It is time to ask more meaningful questions that can actually generate useful answers. 

We need to ask a series of smarter questions about school re-opening. The more questions we ask, the more layers of understanding (and questions open up). We will need to go beyond first order binaries (open or closed schools) to second and third order impact of school re-opening. And for each context, each setting, the third order impact will be different, and therefore the policy responses must allow for those differences and decide whether it wants to be comprehensive, or flexible or nimble. 

Q0: The question, ‘Should schools ReOpen’ is a Bulldozer, a battle ram, a tank. We need to carve a safe path through a minefield – a tank would only lead to more tragedies. The question – ‘when can schools re-open’ – too is a broad brushstroke and inadequate for the complex challenge we face in school reopening. 

A better question would be in a series, starting with say: Should all schools reopen? Does school re-opening apply to all schools? Are schools tied to each other for reopening? Note that each of these is a totally different set of questions. This, before we begin the set of questions about how, how much, when, where and what if – and indeed, why, for school reopening. We need a wireframe for this. Let us try to answer a few of these, selected randomly from the framework. 

Q1. Should all schools reopen? 

Some responses become obvious as soon as the question is framed so – Obviously, schools in high risk areas should not open. Does this mean that schools in low risk areas should open? Not a binary – where do you draw the line of risk for school re-opening? Is it okay if 10% of the population is at risk? Is it okay if teachers are at risk? Is it okay if your great grandfather is at risk? What is a low risk situation for opening schools? These are tough decisions, and once taken will always be indefensible, unforgivable, the first time a tragedy occurs. This is where we are at, and this is the question facing us – we have to face it. This is not an education administration question, this is a public health question. 

What becomes clear is that there cannot be one policy on school re-opening for all schools. – Takeaway one. 

Q2. Should all of each school be opened

Not necessarily. Some schools have safely opened for practical laboratory work at half capacity with social distancing and masking. Some have opened for supporting weak students for major exams – but with only a very limited number at at time. This still puts the staff and teachers at risk, and via them, the entire bubble of the attending students. If  this approach is taken, clearly, more protocols need to be in place. Testing regimens are crucial here – and the duration of test to result is reducing with every new discovery. These need to be deployed with care and honesty. 

Only the most essential parts of schooling should open first, and as protocols are revised and reprised, safety learnt, more phases of school opening become feasible. Each school will need to figure out what it considers super essential, and have a phased opening plan – with scaleable protocols. – Takeaway two. 

Q3. Next question: Should all schools open at the same time? 

Clearly not. It totally depends upon the kind of schools and their circumstances. Small schools with few students and huge spaces (where do they exist!) are clearly at less risk than large overcrowded schools. Schools that are able to section off learning into modules and enable social distancing, open for short interactions are safer – and can be allowed to open in a limited manner. 

This is for the school to decide, and pitch, and for the authorities to allow. The authorities in this case are not the usual education governance community, but must include local public health officials, since it is they who bear the burden of an error in this decision. This is takeaway three. 

The second variable that pops up right with time is timings. In addition to asking, ‘Must all schools be open at the same time?’, we must also ask: “Do they have the same timings?” Does the timing of school opening in one part of the country have any connect with school openings in another country – is this connect necessary? (e.g. Do lessons and exams need to be synchronised or can we design smart exams or social promotion – we come to this later). Do school calendars need to align even within a locality, district, state or country?”

For example, most government schools in the villages in India, and even in the cities have large school grounds and a culture of inside-outside living and working. The school under a tree is very much a part of the heritage from times when resources were very scarce. Open air, socially distanced, masked up lessons can begin while the weather is still good. The worst of the brutal summer, and the impossible monsoon are over in the middle of the country. The harvest is in. In other parts of the country, the weather provides differently scheduled opportunities. This is a good time to think outside the box – literally outside the room – and resume some lessons for some important years and modules. This is just an illustration, a possibility, one of many.

Q3: How does school reopening work?

If specific schools are to be allowed to re-open, How should they be allowed to re-open. Most local authorities all over the world have issued guidance notes on this, none of which have proved to be totally satisfactory. England, London, New York, Norway, Sweden – the stories of failure to get it perfectly right are many. I have much sympathy with them, this is one of the toughest spots we have found ourselves in living history.

We are under siege from an enemy that we cannot see, and that propagates within and amongst us – and we are asking education administrators to find a path through this minefield. They have tried, there is almost no way of succeeding. This, therefore is a work in progress, and no set of ‘How should Schools ReOpen’ protocols will be failsafe. At best this is something to be improved upon each day – at this stage. Many countries have reopened schools. No one has reached perfect safety yet. 

Does this mean we give up on school reopening? Have no exams, let students slide down the learning ladder? There are other huge concerns – private schools are running out of money as fee collections fall. Many low fee budget private schools are on the verge of shutting down, and that is valuable national capacity, indeed infrastructure that will be lost. Once gone, they will be lost forever. 

Is this reason enough to take some risks? As we reach the phase where vaccines have passed their phase 3 trials, we realise, with a sigh of relief that the school reopening conversation can become universal, and yes, it is reason enough to assess the risks with some urgency. Over the months we have begun to understand the disease a bit, we can mitigate some part of the risks if not minimise yet. 

With all of this, the key question is not Whether schools should reopen. The fulcrum lies with “How should schools reopen?” What protocols need to be in place. Most protocols that are in place are either static, or erratic. We need to step up and be smarter – we need protocols to learn from fresh data and evidence and update themselves within a stable framework.

Takeaway 3: School reopening protocols need to be informed, dynamic and usable for lives before learning. Any learning loss can be mitigated with lifelong learning programs, with catch up modules and with pandemic pods of learning in future years – if we live. Protocols that are designed to learn from new data are useful. (Go on, call it AI based!) Dynamic Learning School Opening protocols. 

Q4: How much can schools re-open? 

One of the subsets of ‘How’ is How much. Clearly not the whole of any school. This would lead to overcrowding, and a lack of social distancing. Not even the most disciplined school can manage the brush past in the corridor, the gathering at the school tap, the hidden secrets (surprisingly, phonetically it sounds like cigarettes, doesn’t it?) shared in close whispers, and the closeness that children crave – it would be a hard hart and impossible authoritarian who could hold children apart. 

Schools will have to open partially – say alternate days, or one day a week per student. Much of learning will need to be redesigned for remote work, including online. Hybrid models are now being tried across the world to assess for efficacy and safety, while efficiency takes a back seat. Hybrid models need to define their goals, constraints and modes.  Takeaway 4

Unfortunately, with the best of intentions, this is going to negatively impact equity. If student attendance is voluntary, then only those who cannot access online learning or those with difficulties would have an incentive to attend school, and that to barely. This has very many unintended consequences for equitable futures. And student attendance must be voluntary, it cannot be made compulsory. (Takeaway 5)

It would be terrible to make school attendance compulsory. To make attendance compulsory in the middle of so much risk is to ask a group to march to the possibility of disease and death. Future generations may call it student genocide, current generations would be right to cavil at such potential suicide. The news from countries where such regulations have been imposed has not been good – lives have been lost. If I were in that place, I would not want to lose my life. Would you? If there is one major tragedy in any one school, would you be able to justify keeping it open and asking for compulsory attendance? 

Q5: Once Opened, for how long can schools remain open? What happens if they need to shut down again? How does one understand whether it is safe for a school to be open or closed? Should this decision be taken at the level of the individual (student or teacher), school or local district, or for an entire state or country at a time? 

To answer these, let us consider A simple scenario: What if there is contagion in the locality of a specific school that has re-opened? This spreads to the school and there are confirmed cases, and GodForbid, a tragedy. There is risk of contagion. This school will certainly have to be closed. As will every school around where the students, teachers and staff have people with contact. Now, consider that an area in the city has a spread of contagion, and is locked down. Two teachers used to come to school from this area and may have been infected, or not. The school has now been in contact with these teachers and each person in the school, and those they have been in contact with, are at risk. 

These schools will certainly have to close down again. As the contagion surges and recedes, schools will have to dynamically open and close. This, for calendar and circular driven organisations such as schools is awfully disruptive. They will have to deal with it. The school calendar has been disrupted. Schools will have to be prepared for frequent openings and closings, even after school reopening has been declared. Takeaway 6. 

Q6. One goes back to the original question- why should schools re-open in such a hurry? What is the purpose of such re-opening? During the pandemic, we cannot ask schools to serve all the goals that they do in normal times. 

What is it that schools do that is so essential that it cannot wait it out for a bit? If schools are babysitters releasing time for parents, then maybe we should stop glorifying them as educators. If they are certificate shops, or administrative channels for examination registration, we can find other ways. I had challenged the purpose of schools in an earlier article, and those who discovered it have thrived despite the pandemic. For the rest, and for the specific question of school reopening, schools need to map to the urgent and important and figure out what is vital – only that needs to reopen. We need to understand what is essential, what cannot wait, and what is truly worth the risk to lives – own and others’ lives. Takeaway 7. 

Q7. Is school reopening not essential to the three goals of access, quality and equity? The loss of these is as much as the loss of learning. 

Yes, we need to acknowledge the hit, and the tradeoffs that we are forced to face. There are no answers that will make anyone happy, but as before – this is a minefield. We have to survive it. 

There are some wonderful people working on models of school re-opening. Each of us steps up in crises, to do what we can to make it better. Give me a few days to write another piece on the few tradeoffs, to lay out the spectrum of decision making for policy makers at school and state, so that they can make their choices and get the boat back into the water. 

I look forward to comments and responses. On Twitter, I am @meetasengupta and we can hashtag this #SchReOp or #eduin

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