Stray thoughts on returning to schools in the post-Covid world
Last July, sometime after India’s strict Covid Lockdown was being gradually withdrawn, I walked into one of our town’s leading confectionaries. The smell of fresh cakes, patties and oven fresh bread was such a welcome change from the frugal meals we had been restricted to at home during the previous three months. Among the customers lined up was a young lady trying her best to keep her little son, perhaps all of four years or so, from scampering around the store. I smiled to myself as she did her best to keep him still; and then what happened next got me thinking and wondering about what Schools would be like once the situation normalised and children returned to Schools. The little fellow tore off his mask and ran away to a corner, where he seemed to have found a little toothpick with which he promptly began to poke holes in his nice little surgical mask!
My immediate thought went to the nursery and kindergarten teachers in my former school. How were they ever going to cope with little fellows in their class, who would not only find the face masks restrictive and bothersome; but would also like to exchange Jai’s “Spiderman” mask with Kishen’s “Batman”! As my mind travelled to a chaotic classroom where everyone was trying to tear off his friend’s mask, I wondered how the teachers would explain to irate and confused parents how and why their children were returning home with someone else’s mask. Such incidents may look like trifling issues; but, on the ground, they reflect the humongous changes and challenges that Schools are going to have to face when children do head back to School.
During the course of the national lockdown, teachers were caught unprepared as School administrations suddenly, and without much training, asked teachers to take classes in the online mode. Since none of the teachers had been prepared or trained for this medium, they struggled with the medium as much as with the hardware. Impatient parents went on to social media with a vengeance criticising the teachers who were struggling to cope with the technology, leave alone the content and its delivery styles. However, teachers are a tough and hard-nosed breed, they adapted to the demands of the time and found ways and means to get their coursework across to their students. Thus, by the time Christmas came around, most teachers were secure and confident in dealing with online classes. I doff my hat to their ingenuity and their single-minded devotion to their duty which enabled them to overcome the problems that they faced initially.
So what does the future portend for school education in the days that lie ahead? It is my belief that School education as we knew it from pre-Covid times is going to undergo a series of changes. It was thought, at one time during the lockdown, that brick and mortar schools were a “thing of the past”. I really didn’t think so. That said, I am certain that “brick and mortar” schools will now have to adapt and change – and do so, very quickly if they are going to stay relevant and competitive. Children have, over these past few months, got used to accessing the Net for resource and primary study material. As a matter of fact, this had begun even earlier; but now accessing the Net will be de rigueur and teachers will have to accept that their roles will now necessarily change to enablers and facilitators who will enable their wards to access facts. Plain reading and explaining from the text, which was terribly boring and unchallenging, is now going to be looked down upon by children and parents. This is certainly going to be a positive change for the good.
In the immediate future, Schools will necessarily have to train teachers to handle a set of children who have got used to not going to school. In the pre-Covid times we, as teachers in the senior classes, often had to face the strange phenomena of students “bunking” school to attend coaching classes for competitive examinations – ranging from SAT to NEET and JEEs. Now this phenomena, I am afraid, will also hit Middle and Junior School. And then, those who do turn up for classes in school will constantly be trying to adjust to a learning situation that includes a class of forty-to fifty others like him who would perhaps prefer to stay at home. Teachers and School Administrators will have to forge plans for making School an attractive option, so that children would opt to come to school.
Education, by definition, is the opening of minds and this process does not happen just in the classrooms (or on computer screens) but out on the playing fields, the corridors, the stage and auditoriums. In fact, what is gained inside the classroom is basically knowledge, what is gained on the fields and stage is wisdom. This is what makes for the difference between good and great schools. But in an altered world, where a little bug that is not even visible to the human eye has turned the world upside down, will there be time and space for co-curricular activities that build our children’s muscles and minds? And this brings me to an issue that has had me very very worried for some time now.
What happens to our Boarding Schools? Governments and educations Boards and Councils have been very happy issuing SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) for Day Schools. It is very disheartening that, till the time of writing this article, no one has given much thought to Boarding Schools and how they will operate in these altered times. The arrival of the vaccines may alleviate the problems faced by Boarding Schools to a certain extent; but this is a battle to mind spaces and Boarding Schools who have taken a huge hit during the current crisis will have to re-strategise on how they will move forward from here. It is not just about finances anymore; it is also about providing safe spaces to live and study. The challenges are not small but also not impossible to overcome. School leaders and Boards of Management must invest their time now so that the crisis can be managed for the present and overcome in the long run.
Lastly, whether it is a day school or a boarding one, School Administrations and teachers must be fully prepared to welcome back to School children who have possibly undergone great stress and uncertainty during the time they have been away from School. Many would have lost parents and other loved ones during the ongoing pandemic. Their safe and secure environments would have been shattered in many cases. Young boys and girls trying to make sense of this loss and uncertainty would be facing enormous emotional and psychological anxiety and stress. The Schools must rise up to meet these crises by providing for a safe, secure and happy space for children to grow in. It is my fervent hope, that School administrations are thinking along these lines now – before the Schools actually re-open – and not start working in these areas after the children have returned. Our children deserve the best, and in order to do so appropriately, we must start planning early and be prepared to put these plans into action so that children can come back to “Happy Schools” and, once again, enjoy the fun of growing up among friends under the supervision of loving and caring teachers.
The future may be uncertain; but with proper thought and planning Schools may continue to play a pivotal role in raising “happy and confident” children.