UNICEF has urged parents, students and school administration to take utmost care and adhere to the safety protocols of COVID 19 as schools reopened in Bihar. (Image credit: Mohd Imran Khan)

As schools reopen, renewed focus on learning and staying safe should be the new mantra: UNICEF Bihar Chief

–Mohd Imran Khan

Patna: With school reopened,UNICEF has urged parents, students and school administration to strictly follow the Covid-19 safety protocols for learning and staying safe. “I congratulate the Government of Bihar for the reopening of schools. I am really happy for all girls and boys. Now, children will be able to focus on ‘LEARNING’. The able guidance of teachers will help children make up for their study losses during the lockdown. School closures made many children vulnerable to stress, anxiety, forced labour, early marriage and abuse. Back in school, they can resume joyful learning with friends, mid-day meals. I would like to urge parents, students and school administration to strictly follow the Covid-19 safety protocols, namely regular hand-washing, wearing masks and keeping safe distance. Keep learning while staying safe should be the mantra,” said Nafisa Binte Shafique, UNICEF Bihar Chief.

Keeping children safe is the highest priority for the government and mammoth preparations have been made to ensure this. The Bihar Education Project Council, Department of Education has sent out detailed COVID-19 safety guidelines to all schools. The guidelines based on Government of India protocols were prepared with technical support of UNICEF and spell-out the safety measures to be ensured before, during and after the reopening of schools.

Further, given the crucial importance of Water Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH) in prevention of COVID-19 and other infections, the sanitation component of the grant to schools as part of Samgara Shiksha Abhiyan Guidelines, has been increased from 10 to 25%. These instructions were issued in June 2020 by the State Project Director, Bihar Education Project Council. With schools reopening, these grants will help in keeping children safe and parents stress-free.

Through-out the lockdown, children, parents and communities were made aware of getting ready for schools with safety-protocols. Daily classes through Doordarshan and Safe Saturday episodes communicated these messages through child-friendly animation films and discussions, with UNICEF support.

To build confidence of schools, UNICEF has supported with demonstrating the implementation of COVID-19 school reopening guidelines in 100 Schools of five districts viz. Gaya, Purnea, Nalanda, Sitamarhi, Darbhanga and Madhubani, shared Pramila Manoharan, Education Specialist, UNICEF Bihar. We oriented and supported the Headmasters of these schools on all mandatory actions like observing safe distancing in classrooms, proper disinfection of school premises, availability of adequate handwashing facilities, water, soap, availability of key supplies like thermometers, disinfectants, and adequate supply of water and sanitation facilities, as per the needs of girls and children with special needs.

Anil Kumar Singh, Headmaster of Middle School, Basantpur, Kasba block, Purnea district said that UNICEF’s training has really been very helpful. We have disinfected the school premises. We have installed group handwashing stations which require no touch or minimum touch, together with soaps and sanitizers with the support of UNICEF. Also, in line with the Education department’s guidelines, we are allowing only 50% of 153 enrolled students in classes VI-VIII. Children and teachers always wear masks and ensure that only two students sit on a bench.

Some of the cleanliness measures adopted by schools. (Images by Mohd Imran Khan)

“Minimum-touch group handwashing stations have been constructed in 56 schools (20 schools each in Gaya and Purnea districts and 16 schools in urban Patna) with the support of UNICEF. Also, we are in the process of constructing similar handwashing stations with elbow-touch taps in 300 schools of Patna district through corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds to the tune of ₹2.25 crore. The hands-free or minimum-touch group handwashing stations designed by UNICEF are very effective in critical times even beyond COVID-19 and can be promoted across the State,” said Bhola Prasad Singh, Civil Works Manager, Bihar Education Project Council.

UNICEF has also been proactively providing support to BEPC for strengthening WASH in schools programming in the state to enable the schools to prepare to contain COVID-19 as they reopen for the academic activities.

“In particular, a technical guidance notes on WASH and Infection Prevention & Control (IPC) measures in the Schools in COVID-19 times was developed and submitted to BEPC for necessary action. Further, approximately 1500 key stakeholders including Teachers, BRPs, CRCs, Assistant Engineers, Junior Engineers, BEOs and DPOs from across the State and UNICEF supported five aspirational districts (Gaya, Banka, Purnea, Sitamarhi and Sheikhpura) were oriented on the WASH and Interpersonal communication (IPC) measures in schools through zoom application.

Around 250 schools have been supported to develop ‘Swachhata Action Plan’ from Gaya and Purnea districts, which contributes to improve the WASH facilities in Schools to contain COVID-19. Also, Soap banks and Sanitary Pad banks have been promoted in these schools to ensure adequate soap for handwashing in critical times as well as sanitary napkin for Menstrual Hygiene Management requirements of the adolescent girls in the Schools,” said Prabhakar Sinha, UNICEF WASH Specialist.

As the closure of schools during the lockdown has totally disrupted the normal classroom learning for the students, especially belonging to the government schools, UNICEF supported the state government in devising special programmes for continuation of their education.

“Education department, Government of Bihar took many remote educational initiatives with UNICEF’s technical support. Under “Mera Doordarshan Mera Vidyalaya”, classes for grades 6-12 are broadcast daily on DD Bihar from 9 am to 12 noon. Moreover, Saturdays have been exclusively reserved for ‘Safe Saturday’ in which children are taught about disaster risk reduction, personal and online safety. In Sunday is ‘Funday’, students are taught fun activities in arts and crafts. All these programmes are watched by children across Bihar. Further, classes through mobile applications (Unnayan App) and BEPC – YouTube channels have been initiated too that has benefitted lakhs of students,” informed Pramila Manoharan.

(Mohd Imran Khan is a senior journalist based in Patna)

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