Representative photo: students wearing protective masks at a government school in Hyderabad, March 2020. Photo: Reuters/Vinod Babu.
Srinagar: If a student in Jammu and Kashmir contracts COVID-19 at school, the parents will have to assume responsibility for them falling sick.
This is the undertaking that the state’s education department has sought from parents in J&K, as schools reopened in the union territory last week.
The decision to resume classwork after more than a year comes even as the region is experiencing a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Nazir Ahmad Baba, a resident of the uptown Chanpora locality in the summer capital of Srinagar, said he was shocked by the decision. His son is a class IX student at a local school. “They are playing with the lives of young students. How are students supposed to protect themselves from this … disease?”
However, the J&K education department has sought an undertaking the parents to assume responsibility if “anything untoward happens” to students or if they contract/develop an infection.
The one-page undertaking, which the The Wire has seen, says parents won’t hold school authorities responsible in case a student develops COVID-19.
Specifically, according to the text, parents “shall be personally responsible if there is any untoward incident like coronavirus infection with [their] ward.” It adds that the parent agrees not to “blame anybody in the school for such an incident.”
Parents will have no control over their wards during school hours, but the ‘agreement’ asks them to ensure students follow all COVID-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs) and guidelines, and maintain distances and practice good hand-hygiene.
These SOPs include the use of “face mask and hand sanitiser,” and to “not wear belt, ring and wristwatch in school”.
However, the text doesn’t mention anything about what teachers and the school’s administration commits to doing to ensure the students are safe.
One official, who wished to remain unnamed, said physical attendance from classes IX to class XII was “totally voluntary” – as also for teachers of all classes and grades.
However, the official agreed with Ahmad Baba’s view – that the undertaking itself was just “shocking.” “It is unheard of anywhere,” the official told The Wire. “This undertaking not only puts the responsibility of the students on their parents but it also gives us a sense about the careless attitude of the school authorities.”
Many parents described the decision as “extremely dangerous and idiotic,” and said it would put children’s lives at risk.
“What is the logic of opening schools when Jammu and Kashmir is recording hundreds of COVID-19 cases every day?” Farooq Ahmad Waza, a parent, asked. “Education is important but not at the cost of the lives of our children.”
On Tuesday, J&K reported 18 COVID-19 deaths and 1,081 new cases, taking the death toll to 1,181 and the total case load to 74,095.
Healthcare workers and others have been taking to the social media to express their disappointment with the decision to reopen schools.
Arshad Hussain, a professor at Srinagar’s Government Medical College, cautioned that younger school-goers will have a hard time maintaining physical-distancing in schools as well as at families.
Wary of a renewed surge due to the novel coronavirus spreading among schools and students, and with teachers and schools’ administration unwilling to assume responsibility, most parents have chosen not to allow their children to resume classwork physically.
Schools were shut on August 5 last year, the day the Government of India abrogated Article 370, a constitutional provision that gave special status to the erstwhile state of J&K in the Union of India, fearing protests against the decision.
For the next six months, students were confined to their homes as security forces implemented a major clampdown and communication blockade, banning the internet as well, across J&K.
When the Centre resumed 2G-speed internet services in January this year, schools were asked to commence online classes. However, without higher-speed internet, this was a lost cause.
“The students have already lost one year of schooling. How much difference would it make if the reopening of schools was delayed by another month,” Zakir Maqbool, a postgraduate student in central Kashmir’s Charar-i-Sharief township, said. “How can the parents take the risk of sending their wards to schools when teachers shrug off their responsibility?”
Another senior official said that earlier this week, the directorate of school education had issued verbal orders to schools to seek this and similar undertakings from the parents. “But it is totally voluntary. The students will not be forced to join schools,” the official had said.
Amid this controversy, political parties have also expressed displeasure with the decision to reopen schools. “The decision should be postponed because the safety of students is a must,” said senior National Conference leader Devender Singh Rana.