New Covid variant: Need well thought out plan for schools instead of prolonged closures, say experts


NEW DELHI: With the new variant of COVID-19 sparking concerns and uncertainty, health and education experts have called for a well thought of plan for schools rather than prolonged closures again.

The B.1.1.529 Covid variant or Omicron, first detected in South Africa last week, was designated by the World Health Organisation as a ‘variant of concern’, the health body’s top category for worrying coronavirus variants.

Schools across the country were closed in March last year ahead of a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus.

Several states have partially reopened schools for different classes after prolonged closures.

Seema Kaur, Principal, Pacific World School said just when the schools had started to settle in, the looming threat from the new virus has caused uncertainty and anxiety.

“The education sector has been the worst-hit wherein children’s academic, social and mental skills have gone for a toss. Since 2019, we have observed that Covid has evolved, and it generally comes in waves. But the real challenge is to understand the situation and take a call for the well-being of all,” Kaur said.

In India, the recovery rate is much higher in comparison to the growth rate of cases.

So, a suitable decision is to be taken with respect to the scenario, she said.

“As the cases surge, the right call is to switch to online mode of education; but when the numbers are in control, we must make the most of it and work in a hybrid model to work on the skills that have taken a back seat due to online mode of education,” she said.

“Uncertainty and anxiety are building up with the news of the Omicron variant, yet all we have to do is to be prepared and take precautions,” Kaur added.

Pragya Sharma, professor at Maulana Azad Medical College’s department of community medicine said reports from South Africa, which first reported the Omicron variant of coronavirus, suggest it causes a mild infection and Delhi has a very high sero-positivity of 97 per cent.

Children also reported a sero positivity of more than 80 per cent during the latest sero-survey.

So, it should not lead to a very significant wave in Delhi, she said.

“We should resume physical classes but with a lot of caution and follow Covid-appropriate behaviour rigorously,” Sharma said.

Arun Sharma, Professor, Community Medicine, University College of Medical Sciences, said there is very little information available about Omicron’s infectivity, transmissibility and its relationship with the existing immune status.

“So, whatever we say now will be guesswork, but the government is taking all steps – collecting more samples for genomic sequencing, implementing checks at the airport etc,” he said.

“Though no case of Omicron has been reported in India, it (reopening schools) is a difficult decision to make. Keeping children at home also doesn’t guarantee that they will not get infected,” Dr Sharma said.

Dr Karan Madan, pulmonologist, AIIMS, said physical classes in schools can be resumed under a careful watch.

“At present, the number of new cases of coronavirus in Delhi is not high. If symptomatic cases start increasing, we will have to act accordingly. For now, things can be taken forward under careful monitoring and observation,” he said.

Anshu Mittal, Principal, MRG School, Rohini believes school reopening is crucial now as students have already been deprived of their active learning and social life for the last 18 months, which has certainly created a huge learning gap for them to fill.

“However, we look forward to the approval of vaccines for children by authorities for ensuring that the students are safeguarded. The medical research findings have pointed out that children are not major sources of transmission, thus are not likely to be the carriers or get infected by the new variant. We, as a school, are well equipped to receive our students,” Mittal said.

“Schools must keep open communication with parents to ensure they all are vaccinated and keep school in the loop incase of travelling abroad or to infected zones,” Mittal added.

According to Sumedha Goel, Director, The Shri Ram Wonder Years, Rohini, school reopening is a must now as children’s social and emotional development is being hampered.

“No routine is being formed. The reopening of schools can be sustained with utmost commitment to safety. Covid-Appropriate Behaviour must be imbibed in all staff and maintenance members present at school. Closing the schools completely is not the only solution for saving the children as their intellectual growth is also being hampered,” Goel said.

“Schools must keep open communication with parents to ensure they all are vaccinated and keep schools in the loop incase of travelling abroad or to infected zones,” Goel added.