Parents demand that schools close down but government wants to finish with exams first

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) -  As Covid-19 continues to spread, parents are concerned with the safety of their children, as schools bring together large groups of people in confined spaces.

On Thursday, six-year-old Aarush Acharya’s first grade final examinations began at the Siddhartha Vanasthali Institute in Balaju. There will be five more days of exams, as per the government’s directives, and the school will need to wrap up final exams for all grades up to nine by March 18.

But for Santoshi Acharya, Aarush’s mother, each passing day feels like a week. She doesn’t really care how Aarush is doing in the exams, as she is more concerned about him catching Covid-19 at school or on the bus.

“I am restless until he arrives home. Every day, I pray he comes home uninfected,” Acharya told the Post. “I don’t understand what’s the problem in closing down schools until the risk subsides.”

For Acharya, the fact that there haven’t been any recent Covid-19 cases in the country doesn’t mean that there is no risk. The lack of adequate preparations on the part of the government has only exacerbated her worry.

Ever since the World Health Organization listed Nepal as a “high-risk zone” for Covid-19, many parents like Acharya have been worried about the safety of their children, especially at school and on the bus, as large groups of individuals gather together and could potentially spread the coronavirus.

The government has asked that Nepalis avoid assembling in large numbers, refrain from organising mass meetings and conferences, and stop going to the cinema and crowded places. But it has yet to advise that schools and colleges temporarily close down. Despite suggestions from guardians and even some schools, government officials said that they are looking towards concluding the annual examinations before any school closure is decided upon.

Though exams for lower grades will end on March 18, the Secondary Education Examinations begin the next day and end only on March 30.

“As we don’t have a single case so far, there is no point in postponing the examinations,” said Chandra Mani Poudel, chair of the National Examination Board which conducts the Secondary Education Examinations, the final grade 10 examinations.

Nepal has so far reported only one case of Covid-19. The patient recovered.

According to Poudel, closing schools at this point could affect the upcoming academic calendar. The new school session begins on the second day of the Nepali New Year in mid-April.

But for parents, with fears rising across the globe as the novel coronavirus spreads, even one more day that their children spend in school is the day that they could catch the disease.

“The government seems to be taking things lightly, saying there is no immediate threat,” said Deependra Neupane from Lokanthali in Bhaktapur whose two children study in grades 6 and 11. “Who will take responsibility if our children get infected in school or during travel?”

Neupane believes that schools need to be closed down immediately with examinations postponed, following in the footsteps of countries like Denmark, Slovakia, Ireland and states in the United States and India.

Many of Nepal’s schools have instituted preventive measures like temporarily cancelling assemblies, asking students to put on masks and checking all students for fever. They are conducting awareness classes regarding the benefits of handwashing in preventing the spread of the virus, as per the World Health Organization guidelines.

Members of Parliament on Thursday had asked the government to close down academic institutions where hundreds of children from different places gather, posing a high risk of the spread of Covid-19.

“There should be no delay in closing down schools and colleges,” said Bhimsen Das Pradhan, a Nepali Congress lawmaker.

According to school operators, the parents of students who are taking the SEE are more worried than those from lower grades. Hundreds of students from different schools gather at one examination centre for the SEE, which could pose a greater risk, they say.

“The parents of students from lower grades are less worried because the exams will be over in a week and their exam centres are within their own schools,” said DK Dhungana, senior vice-chairman of the Private and Boarding Schools Organisation Nepal. “The parents of SEE examinees are really worried.”

According to Dhungana, the organisation is ready to close down all its constituent schools if that is what the government decides.

“We will follow the government’s decision,” he said.

For education experts, slight changes in the academic calendar will not have any long term effect on education and it would be unfair for students to sit for final examinations in an environment of fear.

“The government should go with what the parents and children say,” said Binay Kusiyait, a professor at Tribhuvan University who has conducted research on school education in Nepal. “Postponing the examinations will not cost as much the possible threat of infection.”

The Nepali authorities need to learn from Indian states like Uttar Pradesh that have temporarily closed down all schools and colleges in an effort to stop possible outbreak of the virus, said Kusiyait.

Uttar Pradesh, one of two Indian states that share an open border with Nepal, has so far reported 11 cases of Covid-19.
As of Friday, there had been 135,491 confirmed cases of Covid-19 with 5,056 deaths.

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