Is this the right time in Nepal to reopen schools? Experts say it is not

Despite apprehension from public health experts and parents, Nepal government gives a green light to reopen schools in Kathmandu Valley.

Prasun Sangroula

  • Read Time 4 min.

Kathmandu: Despite the fact that Nepali students are not vaccinated against the coronavirus, a joint meeting of the Chief District Officer of Kathmandu and representatives from local levels on Monday decided to reopen schools from September 17.

The decision will bring students inside classrooms after the suspension of offline teaching for nearly five months. The erstwhile government had decided to shut schools from Covid-19 affected districts in mid-April.

The decision has raised a question: whether it is the right time to reopen schools or not?

The daily infection rate in the Valley has fallen but it still has not reached a level that can be claimed as safe. Another cause for concern is whether the government will issue a standard operating procedure, prescribing safety protocols to be adopted by the educational institutions to prevent the spread of the virus. Even if a protocol is issued, will the government be able to closely monitor the situation and take action if the safety protocol is breached?

Due to the pandemic in the last one and a half years, students have attended in-person classes for just a couple of months. Students have either taken the online class or have been deprived of it as well. According to the Economic Survey of Nepal (2020), only 12% of public schools across the country offer internet-based classes.

Offline classes are the desire of every single parent, said educationist Bidhyanath Koirala, former head of the Department of Education at Tribhuvan University. “But physical classes should not be operated at the cost of public health,” he said. Last year, the KP Oli government was heavily criticized while it decided to reopen schools. 

The situation this year is just about the same. “It seems the government is influenced by the owners of big schools,” said Koirala. The government took the decision of reopening schools just ahead of big festivals. “The government could wait a few more months until students are vaccinated.”

The schools should also manage the alternate classes for those who fear attending physical classes, added Koirala. 

As the government has already decided to resume physical classes,  it is important to know how prepared the schools are to resume physical classes as the threat of the virus is still rife and the students fall into the risk category since they haven’t been vaccinated yet. 

Meanwhile, children tend to have weaker immune systems and don’t understand health advice and protocols.

Earlier, the Ministry of Health and Population has also stated that the third wave can have a severe effect on children and it has also directed the hospitals to conduct necessary preparations to overcome it.  Nepal has very few hospitals dedicated to children’s health. 

Narayan Pokharel, principal at the Kathmandu-based school Mandu Academy, said that his school is “fully prepared” to reopen. “Almost all our teachers and staff are completely vaccinated,” he said. “We will maintain social distance and frequently sanitize the classroom and other areas of our school.

“The School has recently held meetings with parents and 100 percent of them have jointly agreed to send their children to schools,” he added. “We are also planning to conduct the shift and alternate-based classes.”

Tikaram Puri, President of Private and Boarding Schools’ Organization Nepal (PABSON), agrees with Pokharel. 

“We are completely ready to conduct the classes physically,” he told Nepal Live Today. “In order to curb the virus’ spread, we will follow all the essential safety protocols. There will be frequent sanitization of classrooms and school premises. Social distance among students, teachers and other staff will also be maintained. Similarly, the sanitizer for the students will be kept everywhere.”

Who should we hold accountable if children will be infected en masse after reopening the schools without vaccination? It is worthwhile to mention here that the second wave of the corona infection reached its peak last time after the reopening of schools. 

He added that the students and guardians do not need to worry about any risk factors.  

“To make things more manageable, schools have also agreed to run the classes alternatively or by following shifts,” he said. “Now everything has gone to normalcy, so the school also needs to follow the trend.”

Contradicting Puri, however, public health experts say that it is still not the right time to send children to schools.

Dr. Sher Bahadur Pun, chief of the Clinical Research Unit at Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital in Teku, Kathmandu, said that it is not a favorable time to run the school because the average infection rate per day is still over one thousand. “But the schools that are situated in the area with less infection rate can conduct the physical classes by implementing 100 percent safety protocols,” he said.

As people are gathering everywhere and mass protests and festivals are taking place all over the country, Dr. Pun remembers last year when the infection rate surged after the Teej festival.

“From school buses to classrooms and playgrounds, there must be the implementation of safety protocols if the schools are being operated physically,” Pun said. “The schools’ administrations should put the minimum number of students on their vehicles and sanitize their seats and other parts frequently. In the classroom,  there should be distance among the students, and the teachers should also change the teaching methodology. They should not ask the students to repeat the words and sentences loudly because it can also create a risk of spreading the virus.”

Pun added that, in playgrounds, there should not be any kind of extracurricular activities because they make them touch each other and talk with each other by putting off their masks.

The guardians are also not fully ready to send their children to attend physical classes. 

Dharma Datta Devkota, president of Nepal Guardian Association, said that it will be only good to conduct physical classes when the schools can ensure the safety of children. 

“The schools who wish to run in-person classes should opt for an alternate way,” said Devkota. “For example, on Sundays, there would be only classes 9 and 10 and on Mondays, there would be only classes 7 and 8.” Devkota urges the concerned authorities to manage vaccines for school students as soon as possible. 

“But for the time being,” Devkota adds, “only those schools located in the low-risk zones should be operated physically.”