In August last year, as the global pandemic raged on, Mumbai resident Monica Vora started getting calls from parents asking whether she would conduct face-to-face classes for their young children. “They wanted in-person classes for their children and a few other children living in the same building,” says Vora. Classes in a bubble, in a sense, for little ones from the same building. Vora had quit her job as a kindergarten teacher in a South Mumbai school in March 2020 to run classes independently. The timing couldn’t have been worse—the national lockdown to prevent the spread of covid-19 was announced just days later.
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Vora, 48, who has taught very young children for more than 15 years, knew they were probably hit the hardest by the pandemic—most of them hadn’t been to school at all and were cut off from the world. “They might be able to cope with oral language, but what about writing and discipline which you learn by watching other kids?” she says.
In September, as restrictions eased, Vora started travelling to Byculla and Lalbaug—about 4-6km from her home in Breach Candy—by cab to teach phonics, vocabulary, storytelling, reading and discipline through fun activities to 3 to 4-year-olds in batches of four. “The parents took turns to host the classes in their flats,” she says. “We wore masks and I carried my own hand sanitizer.”
With cities slowly opening up after multiple lockdowns, the concept of teaching young children in ‘bubbles’—a system where students are split into groups—is finding favour with parents, teachers and a few preschools. Versions of this system are being implemented in schools abroad. In Europe, a number of schools reopened in September-October 2020, following this system of splitting classes into smaller units, especially for primary school students. The idea is to limit the risk of disease to a smaller group rather than a whole class or school of students. In some countries, the system has worked well, but in others such as the UK, it has come under criticism for poor implementation. In India, however, where most states have still not permitted schools and colleges to reopen, parents are trying to create these bubbles privately.
Dr Swati Popat Vats, president of the Early Childhood Association, an association of pre-schools nationwide, explains that the system is here to stay and is likely to be implemented in preschools once they reopen. “The whole concept of the bubble system is that even if one child tests positive for the virus, the whole school won’t have to shut down. Only that particular group of students will have to quarantine. It becomes easier to monitor.”
The ‘bubbles’, however, are not impregnable and education experts have mixed feelings about it. “Let’s be very frank about this—it’s not safe to do this right now,” says Dr Vats. “We still don’t know enough about the virus, how dangerous it is or post-covid-19 complications in children. We also know that children who test positive for covid-19 can be asymptomatic. But I also empathise with parents as their children are frustrated sitting at home, and miss seeing their friends. But I strongly advise them to not let their guard down now. They also have the misconception that their child will be taught in these ‘bubbles’ and remain safe. They have to remember that the child can contract the virus from somewhere else and pass it on.”
Educational psychologist Kamala Mukunda, who teaches at the Centre for Learning and is the author of What Did You Ask at School Today?, however, points out that in-person interaction is crucial for that age group. “Teaching basic skills and foundational concepts in basic maths and literacy to younger ones is a fine art which parents may not be able to do and it would be a pity if children missed out on that kind of professional, primary education,” she says. “Most schools I know are trying their best to put good content online and have some online interaction with the kids. That, combined with interactions with parents and classes in these little bubbles where you interact with your peers, seems to be the way forward.”
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The team at Musical Bonding, a music and movement programme for children under the age of six, had resumed in-person classes in Mumbai in January this year by dividing the children into smaller batches of six. “Parents were asked to sign a waiver agreeing to disclose if a family member falls ill. We trust them to do what’s right,” says Shweta Sankhla, who is a centre head. The in-person sessions were suspended during the second covid-19 wave, but they are now looking at resuming them this month.
While older children have managed to maintain some semblance of a normal life thanks to their social networks and connections, younger children who haven’t been to school at all or at least long enough to mingle and form friendships with peers find it hard to adjust. “A young child needs a lot of interaction, attention and exposure to the outside world. As parents are often busy working from home during the pandemic, the child ends up feeling isolated in the absence of interaction with the world outside,” explains Meenakshi Dogra, national representative, Asia Pacific Regional Network for Early Childhood (ARNEC).
Mumbai-based physician Dr Kalpana Bharadwaj wasn’t keen to enrol her daughter, who is now nearly three years old, in online classes as the child had never been to a play school. “My husband and I are both doctors and had to work at the hospital during the pandemic. I wondered what to do.” In November, she opted for Klay Preschools and Daycare’s at-home programme where teachers instruct children in ‘social bubbles’ at the students’ apartments. She and two friends got their three children together for the classes, and found that the system worked for them.
Klay launched the programme in late July last year. “The batches had one to a maximum of three similarly aged children from the same community. Almost 1,000 families across seven cities where we have our centres opted for the programme,” explains Srikanth AK, CEO of Klay. They had a slew of measures in place: parents and teachers had to monitor and record their temperatures on Klay’s app for seven days before the class. Teachers had to submit a negative covid-19 test before class and get tested every 45 days. “We are now in the process of resuming the classes after the second wave,” he says. “We tied up with hospitals and got 65% of our staff at least one shot of the vaccine. By the end of three months, we hope to get our entire staff fully vaccinated.”
Some parents and teachers did test positive for the virus during the programme and both parents and staff “maintained complete transparency and ensured curbing the spread of the virus further,” he says. “While all precautions are followed, considering the unprecedented and asymptomatic characteristics of this virus, the potential risks are discussed and agreed upon with our parents.”
At Musical Bonding's classes, parents were asked to bring their own yoga mats and their movements were restricted to certain parts of the room. “In Santacruz, classes were held on a terrace,” says Sankhla. “All our storage boxes for musical instruments were sanitized, numbered and assigned to each parent.” A child had to be accompanied by the same parent, grandparent or guardian for all classes.
Many discussions have revolved around whether the Delta Plus variant of covid-19 and the third wave will severely affect children. Vaccine trials in children are already underway but till they are made available to the youngest, parents and educators have to navigate the situation with caution.
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