Environment, Health & Safety (EHS) practices have been an integral part of all kinds of spaces and operations where life and environment are at risk. Educational institutions as schools, colleges, universities are also required to mandatorily perform up to the prescribed norms for EHS. According to the School Safety Manual (2018), some of the key parameters that schools must adhere to are infrastructure safety; health; transportation; student protection mechanism; personal, social, emotional and sexual safety; reporting and response mechanism; emergency preparedness and disaster management; and cyber safety.

COVID-19 however, is a novel disaster, brought with it challenges never faced before. The very basic of human need – physical social interactions, human touch are now the greatest threat to its very existence. That means, that any space with more than one individual, can act as a threat to human life. While individuals and organizations are grappling to understand the nuances of the living with the new normal, the need of the hour is to assess, analyse and devise methods to adjust to changing times and work in collaboration to chart the way forward.

Schools, being the foundation stone of knowledge and primary spheres of influence for students, there are large challenges confronting them. How schools adapt to changing times in a way that does not compromise on quality of education is crucial at this juncture. This might call for a complete restructuring of the existing school infrastructure and operating systems, revaluating the current EHS practices in order to ensure health and safety of students, staff and their families.

WHO, international organisations and local governments have prescribed necessary guidelines for social distancing, safety and hygiene for schools as they gear to reopen physical schooling in near future. Keeping in consideration, the high school population and density of students per classroom in our country, how will all this look and feel in a school setting is still out of the purview for many educators and parents. This article highlights some of the key concerns and associated EHS practices that could be institutionalised for safe school operations in the new normal.

Physical Distancing: how much and in what ways?

WHO recommends at least 6 feet distance between every individual whereas UNESCO prescribes about 8 feet. This would limit about 7-10 students in a classroom at a time depending upon the dimensions of the room.

  • Number of students that can be accommodated per day at a school within safe limits will depend upon many factors as the total school strength, number of sections per grade, number of classrooms, associated school facilities and access to resources. For an average class size of about 30-35 students, each school will have to work out its own batch of students per class and designate days when they would come to school.  
  • Entry and movement around the school building will also need be restricted and students would be required to move through designated trails of sanitized areas. Entry to the school building would require no-touch processes of sanitation, temperature and oxygen level checks for each child and staff member. Students would also be restricted to move around the school complex other than necessary facilities as washroom and water stations.
  • Access to school facilities  other than classrooms as sports facilities, laboratories and libraries may not be accessible in lieu of physical distancing needs as well as to maintain hygiene norms.
  • Travel to and from the school is a major concern for parents. In order to maintain necessary physical distancing guidelines, each school bus/cab will accommodate only a handful of students. Transport facilities would require stringent checks and sanitation regime.

Sanitation and hygiene regime

Hand hygiene, sanitation and no-touch mechanisms would act as a first line of defence against the virus and this would require substantial additions for the safe school operations.

  • Stringent sanitation regimes would be required at every stage. Every classroom and frequently used areas would have to be sanitised after every batch. If a school decides to have two batches per day, this would require two round of sanitation per day. Every transport trip must be followed up by a sanitation process before the next batch of students hop on.
  • Masks would be mandatory for all at times. The masks may be required to replace if they become wet or soiled owing to humid weather conditions in many parts of the country. Face shields may also be advised for teachers or staff.
  • Touchless equipment and tools would considerably add to the safety factor. No-touch soap and sanitiser dispensers, foot operated doors and similar other no touch mechanisms may be installed to minimise touch requirements.
  • Training of staff and students would be essential for necessary sanitation and hygiene practices.
  • Constant communication and Information, Education and Communication materials across the school complex and system would be required to promote hygiene and sanitation practices.

Adapting pedagogy and educational methodologies

Academic transition would be considerably different from the pre-COVID times. Shorter duration and lesser number of physical schooling would happen per batch of students as and when the school reopens in lieu of physical distancing needs.

  • Online vs Offline learning and the balance thereof would still require experimentation and tweaking. Online mode of teaching would continue and will have a larger weightage as compared to face-to-face teaching. The two may be combined together to ensure the entire batch goes through the same speed of curriculum and reduce the burden on teachers.
  • Customised blended learning models is the need of the hour. One size fits all policy will not work in this scenario owing to variation in the kind and size of schools in our country. Schools would have to decide on the best teaching model for themselves depending upon the availability of no-contact tools and technology as smart classroom systems, digital equipment at schools and with each student, access to internet, batch size, and other deciding factors. Students may be required to carry their tech-tools to classrooms for no-contact teaching.
  • Self-directed learning over collaborative and hands-on learning would continue till the situation demands distancing. Access to laboratories, fields, library may not be available. Demonstrations might take precedence over hands-on teaching methods to ensure contactless learning.
  • Limited or no access to co-scholastic activities as sports, play areas, fine arts, life skills and related activities would also cause major shifts in the way students perceive the school environment in the new normal

Different approaches for different needs

“Instead of calling these days difficult times we must call it different times to dispel the sadness associated with it.”

– Dr Lata Vaidyanathan, a veteran educationist and director of Gyan Bharati School, Saket, New Delhi.

Kudos, to the perseverance of educators all around, the education system did not crash in this situation unlike some other sectors as hospitality and tourism. In no time, teachers, adapted the teaching-learning methodologies through use of digital mediums and learning never stopped. As challenging this may be, it has provided some recluse to students as they socialise in a healthy digital environment. Yet, socio-emotional status and associated development needs of children are greatly affected due to loss of physical contact and constricted environments. Fear, stress and anxiety prevails in most households as the adults struggle their own strengths to maintain the safety and financial needs of the family. Teachers are now also endowed with the responsibility of providing love, care, and support to students during these times and will have to learn themselves how to deal more empathetically.

“What is going to be the emotional state of these 9-10 students who come back to physical school environment is a greater concern for us rather than how things will turn out in a physical setting”,

– Ms Sheelu Mathew, Principal, St. Mary’s School, Dwarka, New Delhi.

Educators worldwide are also debating on the age group that can be brought back for physical schooling in the initial stages and an appropriate phased-wise approach for different age groups. While some argue that it is the younger lot that require more physical connection, ensuring they follow necessary safety and hygiene protocols may not be easy. These little ones would require additional adult support and supervision which involves contact. On the other hand, middle and senior grade students are better at adhering to protocols, they can still manage themselves and online learning effectively. A mix of primary, middle and senior grades per batch may be worked out. School managements are also concerned about the approaches that would cater to the needs of underprivileged students, special needs and differently abled students in this process. 

The economic burden of school operations

Installation of new safety gadgets, sanitization and safety gears for staff and students, alteration in batch size and additional operational requirements to ensure appropriate EHS practices would greatly impact the operational cost for schools. While parents are suffering from their own work pressure and losses, the burden on school economy is huge and unparalleled.

Teachers are already working on double or triple shifts, in order to reach out to all students in effective ways. Additional set of teachers may be required to reach out to students at home while one teacher caters to those present at school. Additional staff may be required to meet the additional sanitation and hygiene requirements.

 “Even if the costs are high, we have to adapt to the crisis. The emotional well-being of students must be the priority at this time. The situation demands that we do not instil the flight mechanism of dealing with a crisis situation in our youngsters, rather, prepare them for safe and sound crisis management, problem solving, self-management, and self-care skills. Open communication and trust between the entire school community is very significant at this time.”

– Dr Michael Williams, Dean, Mount Carmel Schools, New Delhi.

Cross-functional cost-benefit analysis is the need of the hour to assess how much and best possible ways for safe and smooth school operations.

Customised strategy and support systems for schools

While challenges confronting the education sector are monumental, a planned approach and effective collaboration between various stakeholders including students, parents and teachers could save the day and ensure a smooth reopening process.

“One policy cannot fit all. Policies are designed by people like us who do not actually have to go through the daily operations as school staff and students in this scenario.” 

– Dr Michael Williams

We are in the middle of the pandemic and in this moment, there are no sure shot solutions to the EHS requirements at schools caused as a result of this. Careful strategy and planning would be required at respective school levels to ensure the best scenario for its students, teachers and staff, without creating extra economic burden on parents or on school itself. Support from state and local governments would be very crucial in this phase. Corporations could provide backing through corporate social responsibility programmes. Expertise handholding of schools for customised solutions would be of great significance in this process of change, in order to ensure that learning does not become an economic disadvantage amid this pandemic.

About the author
Supriya Gulati is a Sr. Consultant at Envecologic where she directs social responsibility, capacity-building programmes and partnerships.