Social distancing and schools in the time of COVID-19

Anil C Rai

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the world like no other calamity has since the Spanish Flu of 1918. Almost all countries the world over have suffered the onslaught of the virus and it has brought about drastic changes to our lifestyle. As the search for a vaccine continues, governments are under great pressure to lift lockdowns and restrictions. 

One of the most vulnerable and worst victims of the pandemic have been the schools. According to a UNICEF report of 15 May 2020, as countries begin to reopen, ‘the number of out-of-school children remains high but is declining. Some 1.29 billion children in 186 countries – 73.8 per cent of all enrolled learners – are directly affected by national school closures.’ Searches on the internet show that at this juncture (2nd week of July) in Europe apart from the scandinavian countries, France, Austria, Switzerland, Spain and the Netherlands have reopened schools. Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, Ghana and South Africa too have reopened schools. In Israel schools reopened but some of them closed again due to a surge in infections, just like they did in South Korea and China. UK, Canada and USA are still debating reopening schools.

The world has not had much experience in social distancing practices especially in the context of the school environment. Much of the research done refers to the influenza pandemic in the US and most schools’ response then was ‘school closure’ to check the spread of infections, there being no specific guidelines on the functioning of schools following a ‘social distancing mode’. In the research paper by Laura J Fahertya et.al (2019), ‘School and preparedness officials’ perspectives on social distancing practices to reduce influenza transmission during pandemic: Considerations to guide future work’, she tabulates five major areas of social distancing ‘within-school practices’, i.e., without the closure of schools. These are listed along with the suggested measures that can be taken.                                                                                                            

The five areas and suggested practices under each can be summarized as follows:-                                                                                    

Classroom: Spaced out seating; limiting group work; restricting movement; class to be separated into smaller groups; move class outdoors.       

Hallway and bathroom: Restrict hall movement; limit bathroom use; avoid congestion during arrival and departure; stagger start of class and dismissal; curtail visitors.                                                                                           

Schoolyard and recess: Segregate area by class; stagger recess time; shorten or cancel recess; encourage solo activity.

Cafeteria: Shut cafeteria; eat in class; segregate cafeteria by class; shorten meal times.                                                                              

Others: Cancel field trips and assemblies; limit non-essential staff and visitors; educate students and families to maintain distance; restrict use of congregation spaces; reduce congestion in health office; cancel classes with high rate of mixing; cancel cross school transfer for special programs. The recommendations of the UNICEF, WHO and IFRC (International Federation of Red Cross) provided in the document, ‘KEY MESSAGE FOR PREVENTION AND CONTROL OF SPREAD OF COVID-19 IN SCHOOLS.’ [MARCH 2020] written by Lisa Bender, supported by contributions from the staff of WHO and IFRC, lists three categories of key messages and actions followed by checklists which basically summarize the points discussed in the key messages and actions.

The information from the checklists can be summarized as follows:-                                                                                                                                

 FOR SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS, TEACHERS AND STAFF                     

The checklist includes promotion and demonstration of hand washing and monitoring of good hygiene ensuring adequate and clean gender segregated toilets; providing hand washing stations with soap and water, or sanitizers in different areas of the school such as toilets, classrooms, halls and exits.

Disinfection of school buildings, furniture, as well as sports equipment, toys, teaching aids, etc., ensuring appropriate equipment for cleaning staff. It also recommends proper ventilation and air conditioning where available along with putting up of posters on good hand washing and respiratory hygiene. Ensuring of daily trash removal and safe disposal.

FOR PARENTS /CAREGIVERS and COMMUNITY MEMBERS                                                           

Monitoring of child’s health and keeping them home if they are ill; teaching children good hygiene practices; regular washing of hands with soap or using sanitizers; providing safe drinking water and clean toilets. Ensuring safe collection, storage and disposal of trash. Teaching safe ways of coughing and sneezing into a tissue or elbow and avoiding touching of face, eyes, mouth or nose. Being patient and understanding and encouraging children to ask questions. Reminding children to be considerate and avoid stigma. Receiving information from the school and collaborating on safety measures.                                

FOR STUDENTS AND CHILDREN                                          

Reassurance of students that it is ok to feel anxious, confused or angry in the present situation and encouraging them to ask questions to parents or teachers to keep updated on safety measures and share information with family, friends and younger siblings. Guiding them to protect themselves and others. Following up frequent hand washing with soap and water and remembering not to touch the face or share any utensils, food or drink with others. Being responsible in keeping oneself, the school, the family and community healthy. Informing parents or elders or a caregiver if one feels sick and asking to stay home.              

With reference to India a recent web article in ‘The Economic Times’, [PTI| Last Updated: May 01, 2020], ‘HRD formulating safety guidelines for schools, colleges to ensure social distancing when they reopen’ states that according to the HRD Ministry, whenever schools and colleges reopen, proper social distancing norms will have to be followed. ‘The likely areas of recommendation for schools will include, staggered classes, different mess and library rules, revamped hostels and canteens, suspension of morning assemblies and sports activities in the playground, dos and don’ts in washrooms and cafeterias and regular disinfection of entire buildings could be part of the guidelines and masks will be a mandatory part of school uniforms. For residential schools, guidelines will detail social distancing norms to be followed in mess and hostels.’    

Whatever may be the recommendations, we are in uncharted territory and how far these recommended steps will play out in real life school setting, the long-term implications of reduced social interaction and the effect it will have on the psyche of the children, especially if the situation carries on for a prolonged period, is yet to be seen. Young children are naturally gregarious and forgetful, so it will be a tremendous challenge for educators as well as parents to supervise and guide children in following the new set of rules. It will certainly take time for young learners, teachers and caregivers to become accustomed to the new norm of the post COVID-19 world. The recommended procedures will certainly put a big burden on the school resources as well as the staff, be it administrators, teachers or auxiliary personnel. It is hoped that the vaccine for this dreaded disease is found sooner than later knowing that the world has to now be resigned to the fact that COVID-19 will be lurking around for some time and social distancing will be the new normal.                                   

The author has been a teacher, principal and academic director of various schools across the country and abroad. He has been in the education field since 1983. He is also a teacher trainer and educational consultant. He can be reached at [email protected] 

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