The ongoing mass closure, according to Mathur, is severely affecting their ability to learn.
“Our little children have been out of school, no peer interactions,” Mathur said. “This isolation, and the lack of development that comes with that, is really quite critical.”
The Delhi government ordered schools shut in March 2020 when cases started creeping up across the country. They have remained largely closed for nearly two years.
It is one of the world’s longest school closures. And for a city with glaring disparities in development among its population, the prolonged learning loss has led to concerns it could increase poverty, reduce earning capacity, and result in mental and physical stress to millions.
In Delhi alone, hundreds of thousands of children from lower income communities — who cannot afford laptops and live in cramped and unsanitary environments — are at risk of being denied an education altogether.
In August, Mathur petitioned the state government to reopen schools. Nearly six months later, Delhi officials met Thursday to discuss a potential reopening.
In the meeting, Delhi’s chief minister and his deputy proposed easing the restrictions to the capital territory’s Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, who has the power to implement the changes as head of the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA).
While the officials agreed to ease some anti-epidemic measures, including revoking a weekend curfew and opening government offices, schools will remain shut.
“We closed school when it was not safe for children but excessive caution is now harming our children,” Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “A generation of children will be left behind if we do not open our schools now.”
CNN has contacted Baijal’s office for comment but did not receive a response.
Asia’s longest school lockdown
India is second only to Uganda when it comes to Covid school closures.
But India’s school closures aren’t uniform across the country, as each state is responsible for implementing their own restrictions.
Baijal was appointed lieutenant governor by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in December 2016.
Now, as the head of the DDMA, Baijal is responsible for drafting and implementing Covid-19 regulations. For nearly two years, he has kept Delhi schools closed, citing health concerns.
Schools reopened in November as cases stabilized but then closed again in December due to severe air pollution. And a surge in Omicron cases has kept them shut in January.
The consequence has been “catastrophic” according to Shaheen Mistry, founder of non-profit organization Teach for India.
“The impact is on multiple levels, the most obvious being learning loss,” Mistry said.
According to Mistry, 10% of children in Delhi’s government schools have dropped out of education because of the pandemic and its economic impact on poorer families.
“Child marriage has gone up, violence against children has gone up, nutrition is a huge issue as many of our children depend on school meals,” Mistry said. “The reality is we are coming onto two years of school closure. Kids have just lost so much learning.”
“We need to be prepared that the impact of this will be very long-term,” Mistry said.
Anxiety and isolation
Mathur’s son met his teacher online in March 2020. At the time, the boy did not know how to read or type and had never used video conferencing before.
“It broke our heart to see him struggling on Zoom every day,” Mathur said. “He had to unmute when he wanted to speak, and mute when he wasn’t speaking. He had to learn how to write online. How do you learn how to hold a pencil online?”
And he never got the chance to meet his classmates either. Mathur is worried the formative years of her son’s life — arguably some of the most crucial — are in jeopardy because of the closures.
“We are really worried about his social development,” Mathur said. “He’s never had a chance to learn how to interact with children his age. As much as we try to give him that, there’s no place like school.”
Rubita Gidwani’s 13-year-old daughter was also forced out of the classroom because of the pandemic — and she says the cost of the closures are apparent.
“The anxiety that children are facing adds up to a lot more,” Gidwani said. “You want a happy child. You want a child to develop overall. And I think that has been impacted.”
In a statement Thursday, the United Nation’s Children’s Fund urged “governments to do everything in their power” to reopen schools.
“We need bold action to enable every child to return to school,” the UNICEF statement said. “This includes providing comprehensive support with a particular focus on marginalized children in each community, such as catch-up classes, mental health and nutrition support, protection and other key services.”
According to WHO, children and adolescents usually demonstrate fewer and milder Covid-19 symptoms compared to adults, and are less likely than adults to experience severe Covid.
However, new, potentially fast spreading variants, such as Omicron, have led to renewed concerns worldwide over the risks faced by children in the classroom — and their role in spreading the virus.
“More than half of the children (6 to 17 years old) were sero-positive, and sero-prevalence was similar in rural and urban areas,” ICMR director general Balram Bhargava said in July.
But as schools in other Indian states gradually reopen, Delhi’s classrooms remain shut. In a statement Wednesday, Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Sisodia said online learning can never replace offline studies. “During Covid, our priority was children’s safety,” he said, adding it was important to reopen schools.
For Mathur, the issue goes beyond Covid.
“We as parents believe that our children lack a voice, they lack a vote,” she said. “Someone needs to speak up on behalf of our children.”