The highly-anticipated reopening of schools and higher education institutes in Tamil Nadu seems to have got off on a wrong foot as around 12 students from across the state, including Chennai, tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this week.
The spread of infection among school children is a downer for stakeholders as far as the return to normalcy is concerned. Having closed down for more than one and a half years now, educational institutes had reopened out of a sense of necessity, to keep the academic machinery going. But this latest development has thrown a spanner in the works - as we find that several months of preparations, precautions and protocol enforcement are no guarantee for a seamless transition to post-pandemic campus routines.
Of course, the government has flown into damage control mode with the State Health Minister Ma Subramanian reassuring citizens that there was no need to panic and that random samples will be taken from schools if any cases of infection are reported. To alleviate the anxiety of parents, Subramanian said that TN is all set to vaccinate school students once it gets the go-ahead from the Centre and has emphasised that TN would be the first state where those under 18 will be vaccinated. The Minister’s statements have come on the back of the reports that children in the age group of 12-17 with comorbidities will begin receiving their vaccinations from October. Dr NK Arora, the Chairman of the COVID-19 working group governed by the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation said last week that for children below the age of 12, vaccination is set to begin in the first quarter of next year, after the results of vaccine trials for the said age group is made public by November.
This exercise will entail a big challenge for the Central and State administrations. The under-18 population of India is 44 crore, and there are about 12 crore individuals falling under the 12-17 bracket. Once the 94 crore individuals making up the adult population are vaccinated, only then can the healthy children be vaccinated. Thankfully, four vaccines have been granted emergency use authorisation, while five more vaccines are in the trial phase. In spite of the assurances, a certain degree of damage to the confidence of parents and students has already been inflicted. Whatever little courage was mustered in the aftermath of the high speed vaccination drive conducted for adults is now being eclipsed by the fear of non-vaccinated students contracting COVID. While experts have said that children rarely develop severe forms of COVID, such remarks might not quell the apprehensions of parents who are now backtracking on their decision to send kids to classes.
Back then, the recommendation of the AIIMS director was that the government could consider opening schools in a graded manner in regions where the positivity rate was under 5 per cent. That reopening formula might have worked for adults, as people needed to get back to office to keep the wheels of the economy turning. But, in light of the experience of the past two years, it is prudent to speed up vaccines for those under 18 as well, as COVID seems to be far more resilient than our young population right now.