No zero academic year, Education Secretary Amit Khare tells parliamentary panel

Decision on reopening of schools, colleges within 10-15 days: Education Minister

The Centre will not allow this to be a “zero academic year” without any teaching or examinations, Higher Education Secretary Amit Khare told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource Development on Monday, according to a member of the panel.

Also read: School reopening will take more time

Speaking in a webinar later in the evening, Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank said a decision on physical reopening of schools and colleges is likely within 10-15 days after discussions with educational institutions, State governments, and the Health and the Home Ministries.

The Committee held the meeting under the chairmanship of BJP MP Vinay P. Sahasrabuddhe on “Preparedness of School, Higher and Technical Education sectors during COVID-19 pandemic”. Fewer than 20 MPs attended, according to sources at the meeting.

State governments can take a call

Several members raised the question of reopening of schools. According to the sources, the Education Ministry officials told them that the re-opening comes under the purview of the State governments, who can take a call after assessing the situation and local spread of the pandemic. For example, the officials said 400 Kendriya Vidyalayas are in red zones.

Also read: When schools reopen

“Mr. Khare told us that the government will not allow a zero academic year, where there will be no instruction and no examination. This is appreciable,” one of the members said.

Given that schools have been shut since mid-March, much of the teaching and instruction have been done through digital methods. The Ministry made a presentation to the panel on the state of digital education with a State-wise documentation of the innovative ways being used to reach out to students, such as the integrated voice recording system used in Andhra Pradesh. Members suggested that community radio and district newspapers should also be used, especially in areas where Internet coverage is patchy.

Also read: Coronavirus | What must schools do before reopening?

At a webinar on the New Education Policy hosted by the Hero Group, the Education Minister was asked if there was any plan to physically reopen schools and colleges. “We have not taken any decision till now, we will take a decision after consultations,” he said. “In 10-15 days, as the situation develops, we will sit together with States, institutions, Home Ministry, Health Ministry and take a decision. Our priority is safety and also education, but safety is the first priority,” he said.

He said the Ministry has been flexible and responsive in its decisions so far, changing or cancelling examination dates as the pandemic worsened. With regard to the government’s insistence on conducting final year examinations, he said this is to ensure students are not stuck with a tainted “COVID degree”.

Also read: Final guidelines on reopening of schools awaiting approval

Over the last month, the Ministry has sought States’ and parents’ opinions regarding reopening dates. States have differed in their response, with COVID-19 cases declining in some areas and surging in others.

Impact of closures on students

The Hindu has reported on the impact of school closures on students without Internet access, as well as children forced to return to rag-picking or other employment. A United Nations policy brief warned that almost 24 million children may drop out of school completely due to the pandemic impact, with school closures also resulting in learning losses, especially among girls, poor families, children with disabilities and younger students.

A nationwide online poll with 25,000 respondents, conducted by the Local Circles group, found that a third of respondents supported reopening schools on September 1, with the others worried about the chances of infection to children and elders in the home. International precedent also indicates that cases spread through schools, with the American Academy of Pediatrics now reporting that almost one lakh children tested positive in the last two weeks of July, just as some schools began reopening classes.

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