New Delhi: With trepidation and some excitement too, thousands of students returned to their classrooms to face a new Covid reality of masks and socially distanced camaraderie as schools in several states reopened on Wednesday.
Fifty per cent attendance, no shared tiffin or even stationery, staggered lunch hours and parental consent were some of the dos and don'ts for schools in several parts of the country, including Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, that opened their doors amid concerns that students had not been vaccinated and neither had all the staff.
Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan held a meeting with senior ministry officials to assess the situation and to take stock of the roadmap for vaccinating teaching and non-teaching staff by September.
While some schools opened for the first time since the pandemic last year, others restarted physical classrooms after the devastating second Covid wave. Now, with many states reporting a dip in numbers, it seemed time to get back on the school track, albeit in a hybrid online-offline format that would enable at least half the children to continue classes from home.
The return to a semblance of normalcy in the national capital began on a rain-drenched note with students of Classes 9-12 trooping into classes, ‘rain-coated', carrying umbrellas and all masked up.
“After 17 months schools have reopened and students will again sit and study in classrooms and have fun with their friends…," Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia said on Twitter.
Following a marked improvement in the Covid situation in the national capital – on Tuesday the city recorded one death, 28 fresh cases and a positivity rate of 0.05 per cent – the Delhi government had announced that schools for Classes 9 to 12, colleges and coaching institutions would reopen from September 1.
"We were completely ready to reopen. We sanitised the campus and our staff has been vaccinated. Students were extremely happy to be back in school… The third wave is a concern but we are hopeful that if all precautions are taken, we will be able to function smoothly," said Usha Rajput, head of the Government Girls Senior Secondary School in Delhi's Vasundhara Enclave locality.
Responding to the many restrictions, a student at an east Delhi school said precautions were essential because Covid was still around and they had not been vaccinated.
"This is the new normal and we will have to adjust," the student said.
Not all schools were ready to open though.
Mount Carmel School in Dwarka, for instance, does not plan to reopen for at least a month as its entire staff is not completely vaccinated.
"It is being said Zydus-Cadila has launched its vaccine for 12 to 18 year olds. I think it is much smarter to wait for another two months," said dean of the school Michael Williams.
At a government school in Mayur Vihar, teachers decorated the entrance with rangoli and performed a welcome dance for students to mark the occasion.
A school in Uttar Pradesh, where students of Classes 1-5 returned for the first since the lockdown in March last year, used balloons to say welcome back.
"It's good that school is reopening. I will meet my friends after a long gap," said Harsh, a Class 3 student of a private school in Lucknow.
His mother Megha, however, was apprehensive and said she will stop sending her son if she sees cases rise again
Her nervousness found wide echo.
"In some classes with a strength of over 50 students, only one or two parents have given consent," a teacher at St Francis College in Lucknow told PTI.
Classes from 9 to 12 in the state had resumed on August 16, and Classes 6 to 8 on August 24.
"Best wishes to students. The schools are reopening from today. All teachers are requested to take care of students and follow Covid protocol," Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said in a tweet in Hindi.
In Tamil Nadu, offline teaching for Classes 9 to 12 resumed with strict COVID-19 protocol in place. Physical classes in colleges also began.
In March this year, during the second wave, the government ordered the closure of schools for classes 9, 10 and 11 from March 22. However, it announced that they would continue to function for Class 12 students who had to appear for board exams.
In Rajasthan, too, government and private schools reopened for Classes 9 to 12 after the second wave. The turnout on the first day was low as online classes are also being held simultaneously.
“The number of students who came on the first day was almost half the permissible number, but those who came were cheerful and excited. We have asked them to… follow all protocols in view of their own safety,” Sumita Minhas, principal of Podar World School, Jaipur, told PTI.
With cases falling significantly in Madhya Pradesh, physical school for Classes 6 to 12 started with a 50 per cent cap on attendance. The state government had earlier reopened schools for Classes 9 to 12 in the last week of July with classes on specific days a week.
On Wednesday, while attendance was thin, some students said they were glad to attend physical classes after nearly 17 months.
Bhopal district education officer Nitin Saxena told PTI that schools were directed to follow Covid protocols strictly and 50 per cent students out of the total strength were allowed to attend classes on alternate days.
In Telangana, schools, barring residential government institutions, as well as colleges resumed offline classes with COVID-19 protocols in place.
The resumption of Classes 1 to 12 followed a high court order on Tuesday, granting schools permission to do so while staying government residential schools from holding offline classes for four weeks.
State Education Minister P Sabita Indra Reddy said students should be told specifically during morning prayers about the need to follow Covid norms. Teachers and other staff should also take precautions at the time of mid-day meals, she said.
In Chhattisgarh, the return to school process will take place a day later. The state government on Wednesday issued an order permitting private and government schools to reopen for Classes 6, 7, 9 and 11 with 50 per cent attendance from Thursday, an official said.
Schools resumed for Classes 1 to 5, 8, 10 and 12 from August 1.
According to the order, schools in rural areas will have to get recommendations from gram panchayats and parents' committees, while recommendations will be mandatory from ward corporators and parents' committees for institutions situated in urban areas.
According to the Union Health Ministry on Wednesday, India recorded 41,965 new Covid cases and 460 more fatalities. The daily positivity rate has been recorded 2.61 per cent and the weekly positivity rate at 2.58 per cent.
Schools across the country closed in March last year ahead of the nationwide lockdown. In October, as millions of underprivileged students struggled with the digital divide, the Centre allowed the reopening of schools.
While several states began partial reopening of schools, there was a complete closure again in April when the aggressive second wave hit.