Health Minister Dechen Wangmo

MoH does not recommend opening schools for a few weeks: MoH Minister

During the Covid-19 press brief held on Friday, Health minister Dechen Wangmo said the ministry would not recommend schools reopening in a few weeks’ time.

“I, as a health minister, am not comfortable. Because no one knows the situation once the India lock-down opens and it is very important to study the nature of situation (regionally and internationally). We must feel the pulse of the epidemic and then plan the reopening of schools,” said the health minister.

She said the Ministry has completed a risk assessment exercise and has come up with risk modification strategies.

The MoH said the government is currently considering reopening schools, but the minister said that she cannot anticipate reopening in the coming few weeks.

When the paper followed up with her on the issue she said she cannnot foresee schools opening for a few weeks and she said that any decision by the cabinet on the issue has to be based on the recommendation of the MoH.

“We are just feeling the pulse of the epidemic and we don’t know right now. If we look at the pulse of the epidemic there are other regions where cases are spiking and the question also is what is the compliance within our self. When we had zero case it was all empty and right now even with 21 cases people are still crowding,” said Lyonpo.

Lyonpo said if the schools are to confidently open then there has to also be a certain discipline in place.

“When I talk about discipline I don’t mean again appointing a guard saying you wear mask or do other things. It has to come from within saying I need to stay in line etc. Once we actually open, without this discipline and certain pre-requisites it will be very difficult,” said Lyonpo.

She said that if and when schools are opened then the pre-requisites to open them are based on international literature like good ventilation, physical distancing, hand washing station and a response system of if there is a positive case in the school then who is going to respond and how one is going to respond and where the children will be quarantined and who will manage the children.

In the meantime, schools, colleges and other institutions in the country are working out various safety measures if and when they have to reopen.

The Dean of Royal Thimphu College (RTC), Shiva Raj Bhattarai (PhD), said the college is looking at the possible challenges and use of safety measures to best prepare themselves for any reopening.

He said RTC will continue applying the lessons learned from the past several months of adapting to the new normal. The mid-semester review has included feedback from students on their experiences to date with remote learning, and the difficulties everyone has had to face so far.

The knowledge base that has been built up about remote learning practices, constraints, and effectiveness can be put to good use when planning the reopening strategy, said the Dean.

“One of the challenges after reopening will be consolidating the learning that has been happening through the remote online mode across learners whose experiences have varied widely. To address this, RTC expects tutors spending more time with smaller groups of students, and even individually, to effectively understand where students are at on their learning tracks, provide constructive feedback, and provide guidance on achieving their required learning outcomes,” added the Dean.

A key part of RTC’s overall strategy is to continue leveraging one of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, that of students developing more independent learning skills.

“The paradigms of resilience and self-motivation for students must be strengthened even after reopening. On the tutors’ side, many have gained experience with innovative teaching-learning tools and approaches that they never tried or even thought of before,” said the Dean.

According to RTC, a typical in-person full-class lecture hours would remain at a reduced level even after campus reopening.

It is expected to serve the purpose of not only of helping to mainstream the independent learning / ICT-facilitated approach and lock in the sense of self-responsibility that students had to gain during their study-from-home, but also complement the health guidance and protocols that will have to be in place.

If required, RTC is planning for the contingency of significantly staggering students and staff and maintaining low density on campus by spreading classes over an extended range of time during each day as well as across six to seven days per week.

Appropriate health and safety protocols are also being developed which would incorporate relevant health advisories, starting with the hand-washing and sanitizer deployment, to the movement tracking and logging systems that were already in place since the campus closure began, to new initiatives such as mask requirements and refresher briefings on basic hygiene practice.

Sherubtse College has made general guidelines of Do’s and Don’ts in case the college reopens. There has been no directive from the government on the reopening of colleges for now.

The college has installed additional water taps for hand washing. Other than such facilities, the college is also looking at academic areas. There are several recommendations made in case the college reopens.

The Sherubtse College Dean Tshering Wangdi shared that different colleges have different problems, and even the number of students differ. The smaller sized colleges are likely to have lesser difficulties in getting back the students, and at the same time maintaining physical distancing, time table rescheduling and others. But the bigger colleges, like Sherubtse, Gedu and CST have porous campus, and highways that run through the campus, so it will be a little difficult to manage.

According to the Dean, it is possible to cover up the entire syllabus even if the college reopens by May end.  Just 11 percent of the students that have practical based modules would face issues.

“At least a month would be needed to finish all the practical classes, and for theory classes, it is still going on online, and for college students it is not so difficult for them to understand. While the lecturers have expressed that it is a bit difficult to prepare the online classes and their workload has increased,” added the Dean.

Principal of Gelephu High School who did not want to reveal his name also expressed similar views that it will not be a big problem to cover up the syllabus, but the students and teachers will have to sacrifice government holidays and vacation time.

“We are worried if the schools open towards the end of June or July or later, then it might be difficult for the students to grasp everything. Teachers will be able to cover up the syllabus but the quality of education may not be good,” said the Principal.

The school has come up with safety measures, but due to a large number of students, it will be difficult to maintain physical distancing in the school.

He said the school is also set to monitor a strict hand washing routine and the use of hand sanitizer.

The school also plans on maintaining the travel history of the students and their families, and remain vigilant on any of the students falling sick.

Other than the government’s directives, the school can follow these measures if schools reopen, the Principal added.

“The greater issue is that Gelephu shares the border with Assam, and knowing the increasing number of COVID-19 cases, the chance of community transmission is very high if any people carelessly does something,” said the Principal.

Meanwhile, high school students who will be appearing for the board exams and final year college students are worried about their exams and how it will be held.

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