Just when everyone thought the first COVID-19 wave was over and students would finally get to go to school after attending long, gruelling online classes that affected their mental well-being, the far more devastating second wave has put paid to all such hopes and plans.

It’s unlikely that in-person classes will resume soon, given the concerns over a possible third wave, which has led to the cancellation of class 10 and class 12 board exams.

This gives rise to a few crucial questions – will children be able to weather another year behind computer screens without any social contact with their peers and friends? What should be done to minimise their stress and make online education less taxing? Will schools tweak their present methods or continue with the present system? How will students without access to digital devices manage?

Digital learning has its advantages and disadvantages. Among the health-related concerns arising out of long hours spent in front of computer screens are immense pressure on the eyes and body, headaches, sleep deprivation, greater risk of obesity, and behavioural, social and emotional issues.

In a viral video, a six-year-old girl from Kashmir’s Batmaloo recently summed up the fears of kids burdened with hours of classes before the computer. Addressing Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mairoo Irfan talked about how she spent three long hours in the online classroom every day. The J&K administration promptly responded to her appeal and capped the duration of online classes in the Union Territory.

Last year, the Union government had formulated guidelines, including a cap on the daily sessions and their duration for different classes, after parents raised concerns over increased screen time. According to the Pragyata guidelines for digital education, online sessions for pre-primary classes should not cross 30 minutes. For classes 1 to 8, two online sessions of up to 45 minutes each had been suggested and four sessions of 30-45 minutes had been recommended for classes 9 to 12.

Though the norms assuaged the fears of parents to some extent, many schools are said to have gone ahead with longer hours of online classes.

Screen time doesn’t end with online classes. Students do their homework on-screen, submit projects and study from worksheets and PDFs sent by schools, and check WhatsApp groups for updates. Add to this television and video games, and the screen time of children increases to alarming levels, parents said.

So, facing another year of online classes, what can parents and teachers do to make life a little easy for children? Is there a better alternative?

“We all are aware that online classes have put some physical and mental stress on children,” said Shyama Chona, a prominent educationist and former principal of Delhi Public School.

She said at this juncture, there isn’t any other better alternative to online education because student safety is paramount and it’s important that the curriculum stays on course.

“We need to train teachers to enable them to better deal with such emergencies. We also need to focus more on boosting the health infra so that we are better equipped to face such situations in the future,” said Chona, a Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan awardee.

According to Dr Samir Parikh, a psychiatrist who leads the National Mental Health Program at Fortis Healthcare, the need is to redefine priorities in a crisis and that’s the nature of crisis resolution.

Parikh acknowledges that the online alternative is not good enough but also recognises that children can’t go out because there is a pandemic.

“So, we need to do what is the next best, which is kids staying at home, getting a routine, education and whatever social engagement that can happen through the same digital interface. The parents’ role here is more important to ensure there is a conducive environment and comfort, so that children are able to spend quality time with them and their extended family, engage in hobbies and activities they like, have some fun and are connected to peers to keep them relaxed,” Parikh said.

Government norms mandate a fair balance of offline and online activities to ease the stress on children. With this in mind, schools are focusing on extracurricular activities.

A private school in the NCR recently started its post-summer vacation session with one week of extracurricular activities such as art, music, yoga, dance, theatre, sports, cooking, riddle-solving, albeit online, before beginning with regular classes. Other schools have included non-academic activities to keep students relaxed.

Kakoli Thakur, a journalist, freelance counsellor and parent of a 13-year-old, says that initially, online classes were exciting for children, including her son who is a tech freak. However, as the duration of classes increased and the lockdowns continued, she became worried because these long stretches were not good for the eyes and caused fatigue.

“One good thing about my son’s school is that they have one sports class every week and they are made to do physical exercises,” Thakur said. “Similarly, in the guitar classes, he looks forward to learning new songs. They begin daily classes with prayers and yoga, and meditation during exam time.”

She acknowledges that children are missing going to school but there is no other option right now.

“Classes can be made interesting by including at least one extracurricular activity every day because they look forward to such classes,” she says.

Dr Parikh says online teaching needs to happen in spurts to make it less taxing.

“Besides the academic part, teachers should also spend a little time every day in discussing aspects of basic living so that young people can share with each other and narrate their own experiences and coping strategies,” he said.

Students without access to smartphones and computers or with intermittent access to the internet and electricity are among the worst-affected.

“What do we do? We do not have any computer at home. Classes are shut. I send my daughter to a neighbour who teaches whatever she can,” said Susheela Devi, a house help, whose daughter studies in a government school.

A nationwide survey conducted by the National Council of Educational Research and Training last year among the Centre-run Kendriya Vidyalayas, Navodaya Vidyalaya schools, and schools affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education showed that 27% of the students did not have smartphones or laptops to access online classes and 28% of the students and parents cited intermittent power supply or lack of electricity as a major hurdle.

Parents of students with special abilities are also bearing the brunt. Jaya Bhattacharyya, mother of a specially-abled son, says, “My son’s school asks me to send a video of my son doing some work as part of home activity. But it is very difficult to do that with such children. There is no alternative to physical classes for special kids.”

Teachers also have had to cope with the changes, handling online classes for the first-time last year, figuring out apps to download, getting used to network issues and learning to correct assignments on PDF files.

“But this year, we are better equipped and so it’s easier. To make classes interesting, we show them slides with the help of an app and students can see what they are learning. But I wish physical classes begin soon because I believe that the root of education starts from school,” said Tanaya Das, a high school teacher.

Dr Sanjay Chugh, senior consultant psychiatrist, says the human brain is a highly dynamic organ, very adaptive and responsive to change. Nothing major happened as feared last year and all children, teenagers and adults found ways to cope, he said.

“So, nothing much will happen even if we have to bear with one more year of online education,” he said. “Kids and adults have got used to different digital means to keep in touch. The same applies to education and movies. There is nothing you cannot do at home what you were doing outside. Life goes on.”

(This is a slightly modified version of an article originally published in MoneyControl. The original article can be found at https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/india/how-schoolchildren-will-cope-with-another-year-behind-screens-7015731.html)