Delhi reopens schools, lifts more Covid curbs


Schools in Delhi will begin to reopen for in-person classes from next week, the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) decided on Friday, lifting more restrictions, including on running gyms and spas, as the Covid-19 outbreak continues to relent.

Schools will be opened in two phases, at first for classes 9-12 from February 7, before the remaining grades are opened up on February 14. Colleges and coaching centres can open at once from next week but teachers in schools will not be allowed to rejoin work if they are not vaccinated.

DDMA also decided to reduce the night curfew by an hour, allowing businesses like restaurants to remain open till 11pm, although the 50% capacity limit on such establishments remains in place. All offices can also open with 100% of their staff on site.

Lieutenant governor Anil Baijal, who heads DDMA, said the decisions were taken after discussions with experts.

“It was agreed to open colleges/higher educational institutions/ coaching centres, skill development centres and classes 9-12 in schools subject to strict adherence of SOPs prepared by the education department. It was decided to open gyms, spas, swimming pools, yoga institutes and allow business to business exhibitions subject to adherence of prescribed SoPs,” he said in a tweet following the meeting.

The decision on schools comes after almost two weeks of strong appeals from educational institutions and parent groups, who said it was about time for offline classes to resume since cases were now at their lowest levels in weeks and the benefit of keeping children home was far outweighed by the learning loss and the damage to their physical and mental well-being. In the previous DDMA meeting on January 27, the Delhi government also backed the reopening of schools, but DDMA decided to wait and watch.

A DDMA official, who asked not to be named, said a presentation was made by the health department on the Covid situation, following which the experts suggested relaxations should be given, particularly since a large number of students in the 15-18 age group have also been vaccinated.

Among the data presented was test positivity trends – which has shown a sustained fall this week to reach below 5%, a key threshold below which an outbreak is considered under control – and hospital occupancy rates. As on February 3, only 8.5% of Covid-designated beds, 8.7% Covid-designated beds with oxygen support and 11.5% of Covid-designated intensive care unit slots were occupied, the data, seen by HT, showed.

The city recorded 2,272 new cases on Friday with a test positivity rate of 3.85%. The last time new cases were lower than this was on December 31.

The administration also decided to lift a controversial rule that compelled people to wear a mask even if they were alone in a car, the third roll back that came only after significant criticism.

In recent days, groups representing hundreds of schools and associations representing gym owners have made strong appeals to Baijal, who was under pressure from the city’s elected government as well.

Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia later addressed the media and said: “Prolonged school closures have resulted in significant learning losses among students of all ages and students’ social and emotional well-being has also suffered.”

He said classes will begin “in a hybrid model for students in grades 9-12” on Monday, February 7, and will gradually transition to a completely offline mode in coming weeks. For younger school kids, a similar timeline will begin on February 14, and the government has asked schools and colleges to prepare for the return of students in this sequence.

Sisodia said that relaxation in night curfew timings will have an impact on restaurant operating hours as well and they are now permitted to operate until 11pm. “Earlier, police officers on duty instructed restaurant owners to close their doors by 10pm to comply with Covid restrictions. However, they will no longer be forced to do so.”

“In addition, all offices, both government and private, will be allowed to operate at full capacity,” Sisodia said, adding that operators of gyms, spas, and swimming pools and other business establishments have suffered significantly as a result of the prolonged closure of these facilities.

On January 27, DDMA lifted the weekend curfew and odd-even restrictions in marketplaces. It also allowed cinemas, restaurants, and bars to reopen with a 50% cap on seating. No change has been made on the cap. Most restrictions on commercial activities have now been lifted.

Dr Jugal Kishore, the head of the department of community medicine at Safdarjung Hospital, said the Covid positivity in Delhi is under 5% and decreasing fast across the country. He added a majority of cases are mild in nature and mortality is only among those with comorbid conditions. Kishore said, therefore, restoring normalcy is important. “Reopening of school is vital for students for their growth and development and same applied to gyms and other business establishments.”

School representatives welcomed the DDMA decision. Sudha Acharya, chairperson of the National Progressive School Conference (NPSC), which has over 120 Delhi schools as members, said schools were looking forward to students returning. “We welcome the decision taken by DDMA today. Finally, children will be back to their second home. We expect that there will not be any further disruption in learning now. Our focus will be on covering up the learning gaps that have increased on account of frequent school closure,” said Acharya.

Trader groups, however, were unhappy with the night curfew remaining in place. The Confederation of All India Traders secretary general Praveen Khandelwal said: “The night curfew greatly affects the logistics operation in intrastate and interstate movement of goods, which in turn adversely affects the trading activities in Delhi. The non-entry of vehicles in day time in city and then the night curfew is a big hurdle in smooth business activities.”

Chamber of Trade and Industry chairman Brijesh Goyal welcomed the easing of curbs. “DDMA has made the right move. It should also have lifted the night curfew so that the business establishments get more time for operations. It is a good move to allow gyms to reopen because thousands of workers associated with these establishments are facing unemployment.”

The Delhi Gym Association said around 500,000 people are dependent on gyms for their livelihood, while welcoming the move. “Gym owners have already suffered a lot of financial losses due to lockdown and all of the gym owners are in debt. DDMA’s decision comes as a big relief for gyms owners and those employed in the sector. In all gyms, Covid-appropriate behaviour will be strictly followed. We request the authorities in Delhi to keep the gyms out of the ‘yellow alert’ bracket so that gyms are not frequently shut,” said Chirag Sethi, the association’s vice-president.

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