After more than 600 days shut out, Delhi's students just want to go back to school

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(CNN) -- Dharini Mathur's son had just turned 4 when he started pre-school online. More than 600 days later, he still sits behind his computer screen, attempting to learn virtually -- while making zero contact with his classmates and teachers.

He is one of more than 4 million children in India's capital, Delhi, forced out of the classroom because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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.

According to a report by the United Nations, India closed its schools for 82 weeks -- or 574 days -- between March 2020 and October 2021. Uganda closed classrooms for 83 weeks.

But India's school closures aren't uniform across the country, as each state is responsible for implementing their own restrictions.

In March 2021, India's government passed a controversial bill giving sweeping powers to Delhi's unelected lieutenant governor to approve all executive decisions in the capital territory.

Baijal was appointed lieutenant governor by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in December 2016.

At the time, Delhi's elected Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal criticized the law as "unconstitutional" and "anti-democracy," claiming the BJP's move would "drastically curtail" the powers of the representative government.

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.

Following its first closure in March 2020, Delhi schools remained shut for the rest of the year. They reopened briefly in early 2021 -- but were forced shut again when India experienced its devastating second wave of infections in April that year.

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."

But the problem isn't limited to cities. A 2021 survey of 1,400 households by local NGO Road Scholarz found only 8% of children in rural India were studying online regularly, while 37% were not studying at all -- largely because they don't have access to computers and smartphones.

Girls are further marginalized. According to NGO Right to Education Forum, an estimated 10 million secondary school girls in India could drop out of school because of the pandemic -- putting them at risk of poverty, child marriage, trafficking and violence.

"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."

In September 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) said school closures have "clear negative impacts on child health, education and development."

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.

Between December 2019 and October 2021, children under age 5 represented 2% of reported global Covid cases, while older children ages 5 to 14 accounted for 7% of global reported cases, WHO said in a statement in November last year.

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.

In recent months, the United Kingdom, parts of Europe and the United States, have all seen a rise in pediatric infections linked to Omicron. The uptick has threatened to disrupt plans to reopen schools. In the US, the Biden administration has insisted schools are "more than equipped" to stay open, though some elected officials are erring on the side of caution by delaying the new term.

In India, more than two thirds of the population may already have some level of immunity against Covid-19, according to a July 2021 serological survey from the government-run Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

"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.

Vaccinations have also started for children above age 15, with more than 43 million having received their first dose as of Thursday.

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."

This story was first published on CNN.com "After more than 600 days shut out, Delhi's students just want to go back to school".