Corridors rang out with the chatter of students meeting up with their friends and teachers after long, anxious months on Friday as schools in Kerala, Karnataka and Assam reopened with strict COVID-19 regulations, including masks, thermal screening, hand hygiene and social distancing.
Though many students attended school, with letters of consent from their parents, some chose to continue education online with their guardians anxious about the pandemic situation and the emergence of a new strain of the novel coronavirus.
India on Friday reported a single-day rise of 20,035 new COVID-19 cases which pushed the country's virus caseload to 1,02,86,709.
The death toll increased to 1,48,994 with 256 fresh fatalities, according to Union Health Ministry data.
In Karnataka and in Kerala, classroom studies for classes 10 and 12 resumed on the first day of the new year, while in Assam children studying in classes one to five attended schools.
Staggered classroom schedules were followed by schools in these states, with the Centre recommending only 50 per cent of students be allowed at a time in educational institutes.
Attendance of students is also not mandatory and they can choose to continue classes online, the central government had recommended.
Universities and schools across the country were closed in mid-March, when the Centre announced a countrywide classroom shutdown as part of measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Subsequently, a nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 25.
The government started easing restrictions gradually from June 8 under 'Unlock' .
While regular classes began in Karnataka for class 10 and second-year pre-university (PU) Class 12 students, who will be taking board exams, students from grades six to nine came to campuses for the Vidyagama programme, which enables continued schooling.
Wearing masks, students with consent letters from their parents were seen entering classrooms after thermal checks and sanitising their hands at schools and PU colleges.
Inside the classes too, students were seen seated maintaining social distancing.
While there was opposition from certain sections about opening schools and PU colleges amidst prevailing pandemic situation, others including Karnataka Education Minister S Suresh Kumar were of the opinion that opening of schools and colleges along with preventive measures were necessary for students, especially in rural areas, with online education mostly not available and cases of them being forced into labour.
Schools and PU colleges have remained closed in the state since March just ahead of the national lockdown was first enforced to combat COVID-19.
Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa said the school and colleges are restarting in the interest of educational progress of the students.
'In the interest of educational progress of the students, from today class 10 and 12 will start, also Vidyagama will restart for class 6 to 9 students.
'All the necessary arrangements have been made for the safety of the students. Compulsorily use masks, maintain social distancing, cleanliness and cooperate with the government,' he said in a tweet.
Classrooms and premises of schools and colleges were sanitised ahead classes resuming on Friday.
Kumar, who visited schools and PU colleges at various places, said, "There is scene of celebration and joy at school premises...the worry that is there among some parents will not go easily in a day it will be there, so I'm saying two things, those who still have worries send your children to schools once it is resolved, as it is not compulsory, and those sending to schools don't worry, precautionary measures are in place."
Kumar is also the primary and secondary education minister in the Karnataka government.
He said that 'about the worry around the second wave and UK variant of the virus, I have spoken to expert committee members, there is no need for worry, it is not more dangerous than the earlier COVID variant, same precautionary measures will hold good and the vaccines that are getting ready will be able to address it'.
Expecting attendance of 40 to 50 per cent on Friday, the minister also said that 'we are not expecting good attendance on the first day itself, as attending classes are not compulsory, also (Friday) being a New Year many may want to come to classes from Monday'.
Schools in Assam reopened for primary students after 10 months in a staggered way following strict COVID-19 protocols.
Classroom teaching started resumed for pupils studying in classes one to five, though their attendance is not compulsory and will depend on parental consent, officials said.
Students who were full of enthusiasm attended schools wearing masks and they used sanitiser before entering classrooms, they said.
Strict safety protocols have been put in place for reopening of schools, which includes regular sanitisation of classrooms.
Under a staggered class schedule, students of classes one, two and three will attend school on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays while those studying in classes four and five will go to their institutes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the officials said.
Classes for the elementary level will be held between 9.45 am and 1.45 pm with a half-an-hour lunch break from 12.15 pm, they said, adding that students below the age of five years cannot attend schools.
In Assam, staggered classes were being held from September for students from class six onwards in both government and private educational institutes and they started attending classes in a normal manner from Friday.
The online mode of education will continue for students who do not want to attend physical classes and it is applicable to all private and coaching institutions as well, officials said.
Teaching and non-teaching staff will have to undergo COVID-19 test every 30 days and there will be no cultural or other functions in schools until further government orders, according to the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) issued by the Education Department.
Educational institutes in Assam were closed since March 29.
Hostels for students of classes 10 and 12 in residential schools, colleges and universities have started functioning from December 15 following directives from the state education department.
For students, faculty and school staff in Kerala, strict instructions right from wearing masks, washing hands at frequent intervals to mandatory social distancing were in place.
As part of the government's instructions, classes for 10th and 12th standards began in schools across the southern state with limited hours and restricted number of students.
"I am really excited to be back in my school, I have never thought that I can spend time with my friends at this campus again," a thrilled Akhila, a 10th standard student of a Thiruvananthapuram school, said.
Parvathy, another student, said she was fed up attending online classes and she had really missed actual classroom studies.
"Online class is a good option at this time of crisis. But, it cannot give the feel and positivity provided by an actual classroom. Not just schools and classrooms, I really missed my teachers and friends," she said.
But, the strict instruction of keeping distance from other students and admission of only one student in a bench made some students a tad unhappy.
It was after a gap of nine months that the schools opened in the southern state, in compliance with strict COVID protocols.
All these months, students were attending online classes through the Kerala Infrastructure and Technology for Education's (KITE)- Victers channel.
They were greeted with digital thermometers at the entrance of schools to measure their body temperature, which is mandatory as per the guidelines issued by the authorities.
They were admitted into the school campus only after collecting consent letters from the parents.
Schools in Kerala was remained closed since the coronavirus-induced lockdown in March.
A recent high-level meeting, chaired by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, had decided to reopen educational institutions, including schools and colleges, in adherence with COVID guidelines.
In its guidelines, the General Education Department directed that only 50 per cent of students be allowed at a time in schools and that classes be arranged as one student per bench in the first week.
It is better to allow 25 per cent of the students at a time in schools, where their strength exceeds 300 in number in classes 10 and 12, according to the guidelines issued by the Director of Public Instructions (DPI).
In the detailed instructions given, authorities in Kerala have asked the school managements to ensure masks, sanitiser, digital thermometer and soaps in their institutions.
Students should be asked to maintain a distance of two metres between each other and classes may be conducted in shifts of limited hours if necessary, it said.
Articles in classes should be disinfected every two hours and children should be admitted in classes only with the consent of parents.
As per the present plan, the Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) and Higher Secondary (HSC) second year board exams would be held from March 17 to 30 in strict compliance with COVID protocols.
Meanwhile, an official statement said here that a total of 1.75 lakh new students have taken admission in classes 1 to 10 in state-run schools this academic year in Kerala.