Parents worry as schools in India reopen amid severe pollution and Covid-19

NEW DELHI – As pollution levels spiked in the Indian capital of Delhi this month, interior designer Sangeeta Chauhan sent her daughter out of the city and back to her boarding school in the neighouring state of Rajasthan.

Her 16-year-old daughter was returning to school after 19 months as Covid-19 cases remain stable across India.

There were 8,309 cases on Sunday (Nov 28) as opposed to 400,000 during the peak in April and May.

Ms Chauhan also took her 13-year-old son out of Delhi twice in the past month and a half to escape pollution, which usually spikes at this time due to adverse weather conditions like cold weather that traps pollutants from sources including stubble burning.

Her son, an avid footballer, has a problem of weak lungs that developed over the past few years, while her daughter suffers from breathing problems during the winter months.

“I had to send her (back to boarding school) because pollution in Delhi was so terrible… This time it was really bad,” said Ms Chauhan, 50.

“I took her (to school) over a week after Diwali on Nov 14 and within a week she was back with Covid-19,” said Ms Chauhan, adding that the school saw an outbreak of the virus.

She has now decided that her daughter will continue with her online education. And her son, whose school is reopening next week, will also stay home because he requires nebulisation to clear up congestion.

Many parents are similarly grappling with the twin worries of severe pollution and Covid-19. But unlike Ms Chauhan, many choose to send their children to school.

“Some 1,300 out of 1,400 parents at my son’s school have said they will send their children. But I am not going to take that risk. Pollution is even more deadly than Covid-19,” she said.

In Delhi, schools for multiple classes are reopening this week after being shut down for over a week as pollution worsened to the severe level, the worst on the Air Quality Index, around Diwali.

The authorities earlier decided to reopen all classes in Delhi at 50 per cent capacity from Nov 1, after a prolonged closure due to Covid-19, with primary students out of school for 21 months.

Students walk to school in New Delhi on Nov 29, 2021. Schools had been closed for nearly 15 days due to a spike in air pollution. PHOTO: REUTERS

But pollution disrupted that schedule, even as India has the “distinction”, according to the World Health Organisation, of having the longest school closure in the world.

While many parents want their children back in school to make up for learning losses, spending long hours on devices and a drop in social skills, worries remain over pollution and Covid-19. Adding to their worries is the news of the Omicron variant first detected in South Africa.

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India is yet to make a decision on vaccinating children.

“Parents are constantly living with fear. First, it was Covid-19 and now we are back to air pollution. It’s not easy on kids, parents or school management,” said Ms Bhavreen Kandhari, environmentalist and member of Warrior Moms, a group of mothers from all over India who have come together to raise awareness about pollution.

Her twin daughters will be returning to school from this week for their school-leaving exams, crucial for entry to college.

“My girls are going to turn 18 and I was not able to help them. They have been breathing this ‘poison’ non-stop,” she said.

Delhi, home to some 20 million people, is one of the world’s most polluted cities.

People commute along a street in New Delhi on Nov 29, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

It experienced the worst level of pollution in November in recent years, with air quality in the severe category for 11 days, according to the Central Pollution Control Board. Pollution remains in the poor category, with the city in a shroud of grey, particularly during the mornings and evenings.

Its poor air quality is due to different pollutions – from vehicular pollution and burning of waste to industrial pollution. In winter, it is exacerbated by cold weather trapping pollutants in the atmosphere.

Levels of PM2.5 – very fine particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns or less in diameter and is linked to chronic bronchitis, lung cancer and heart diseases – have remained multiple times over the safe limit.

A report last year by the Health Effects Institute, a US-funded agency, assessed that air pollution could be largely responsible for 120,000 infant deaths in their first month of life in India.

Another study of 4,300 children between 13 and 17 years by Lung Care Foundation in New Delhi found that one out of three children in the city had impaired lung function.

“Everyone in Delhi breathes this air 24/7, 365 days so this has a chronic effect on the health of children and adults,” said Dr Arvind Kumar, Chairman of the Institute of Chest Surgery at Medanta Hospital and founder trustee of Lung Care Foundation.

“Every doctor dealing with general cases or chest sees a spike in the number of adults and children with viral pneumonia, exacerbation of asthma, watering eyes and chest-related issues.”

Still, life goes on for many.

“The focus for us is on exams,” said 17-year-old Bhavya Mohindroo, who is sitting his school-leaving exams next week.

“Covid happened and then pollution happened. Everything fun about school was taken away.”

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