New Delhi: Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia on Wednesday said it was crucial to reopen schools as the pandemic-induced closure was widening the learning gap, speaking a day before a crucial meeting of the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) that is likely to heed the growing clamour to begin lifting restrictions.
As Covid-19 cases fall and hospitalisation rates remain low, Sisodia, who also holds the education portfolio, said the Delhi government will place a request before DDMA to allow children back in the classroom. The government is also likely to push for lifting of the weekend curfew, allowing standalone shops on all days of the week, and allowed dine-in at restaurants with some restrictions.
The Capital on Wednesday recorded 7,498 new infections from 10.59% of all tests conducted the day before. The number of people in hospitals with Covid-19 went down to 2,137, the lowest since January 10, when just under 2,000 beds were occupied.
The Delhi deputy chief minister’s comments came after his meeting with a delegation of parents led by epidemiologist Dr Chandrakant Lahariya and other public policy experts. The delegation submitted a petition seeking the reopening of schools. It been endorsed by at least 1,600 signatories.
“I agree with their (parents’) demands. We closed schools when it was not safe for children but excessive caution is now harming our children. A generation of children will be left behind if we do not open our schools now,” Sisodia tweeted after the meeting. “Why we are the last among major countries to decide on this?” he added.
Other than a decision on schools, the curb on shops is likely to be eased, an official aware of the matter said on condition of anonymity. Currently, shops are allowed to operate on an odd-even basis on week days.
“Restaurants are also likely to be opened, but up to 50% seating capacity. However, it is too premature to be certain about lifting the weekend curfew, which is one point that will be discussed at length and decided at the DDMA meeting. It (the decision) can go either way,” said a senior government official, asking not to be named. Currently dine-in services are banned across the Capital, and only home delivery from outlets is allowed.
The Delhi government’s health department has already recommended that businesses activities be allowed to resume without restrictions, and private schools have urged the authorities to bring children back to the classroom.
DDMA, headed by lieutenant governor Anil Baijal, has called a meeting for 12.30pm on January 27 to discuss the Covid-related measures. Last week, the agency rejected a request from the Delhi government to lift the weekend curfew and allow all shops to open, although it accepted the proposal to let private offices call back 50% of staff to their locations. Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal is the-vice chairperson of DDMA.
On Wednesday, Sisodia said that while children’s safety was the government’s priority, various studies demonstrated that Covid-19 was not very harmful to children and several states in the country had already reopened schools. He added that it would not be appropriate for children to stay away from schools at a time when Covid-19 cases and positivity rate in the Capital were on the decline.
The Delhi government ordered the closure of schools on December 28 as it implemented the Graded Response Action Plan’s (Grap) “yellow alert” amid a spike in Covid-19 cases. Prior to that, schools reopened for students of all grades on November 1. Barely two weeks after reopening, schools were asked to suspend in-person classes due to hazardous pollution levels on November 13. They reopened on November 29, only to shut down four days later on December 2. While classes resumed for Class 6 and above from December 18, they were suspended again from December 29 on account of Covid-19 curbs.
“In the past two years, schoolchildren’s lives have been confined to their rooms. Instead of going to schools and spending time in playgrounds, all their activities now take place only on mobile phones. The pandemic-induced school closures have not only affected their studies but also mental health. During Covid, our priority was children’s safety. But since various researches have now found that Covid is not so harmful for kids, it is important to reopen the schools, as now is the time for exams and related preparations,” Sisodia said.
Dr Lahariya, a member of the parents’ delegation that pushed the petition, said the closure of schools had a very negative impact on children’s learning and mental and emotional well-being. The sentiment was echoed by other signatories, who called for stakeholders to reopen schools and anganwadi centres for physical classes on priority once Delhi begins lifting its prevailing Covid-19 restrictions.
“On Republic Day, as citizens and voters, we strongly urge you to respect our children’s constitutional rights to education, health, and life. As you lift Omicron-related restrictions, schools and anganwadis must be the first to open (for all classes). Attendance can be subject to parental consent. SOPs must be reviewed and updated in a timely manner based on current science – they must be realistic in order to restore normalcy to our children’s lives and education,” the petition said.
It added that many countries kept schools open in the latest wave fuelled by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, while India (Delhi in particular) implemented one of the world’s longest school closures. They noted that schools in Uganda that remained closed for nearly two years also reopened on January 10.
There have been growing demands in recent days from the Delhi government, the business community, and parents of schoolchildren for DDMA to ease Covid-19-related restrictions, which several medical experts regard as unnecessary at a time when the outbreak is under control.
People from different walks of life signed the petition that was sent to Baijal, Kejriwal, Sisodia, health minister Satyendar Jain, Union department of school education and literacy secretary Anita Karwal, Delhi chief secretary Vijay Dev, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) chairman Priyank Kanoongo, Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) chairman Anurag Kundu and Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) chairman Manoj Ahuja.
“Any decision requires an assessment of risks and benefits. Covid-19 is not the only risk to our children. The harms of prolonged school closures significantly outweigh the benefits. Experts have also concluded that younger children are at very low risk of severe or fatal COVID-19 and vaccination is not a prerequisite for opening schools. Sero-surveys indicate that 80-90% of children have already been exposed to COVID-19,” the petition said.
Monday this week marked the first day that schools in several parts of Maharashtra opened. The state, particularly its capital Mumbai, was among the earliest to be hit by the Omicron variant along with Delhi. Students in most cities can now go back to in-person classes after the outbreak there appeared to be under control.
The Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) on Wednesday wrote to Baijal, demanding lifting the weekend curfew and the odd-even rule for shops. CAIT secretary general Praveen Khandelwal said the retail trade in Delhi has suffered a loss of about 70% in the last 25 days due to the restrictions.