Natural Disasters

When schools rose to the challenge of COVID-19

Schools provide the required emergency infrastructure and function more than learning ecosystems; Long-term investments in schooling infrastructure must, therefore, be made on a priority basis

By Swasti Pachauri
Published: Thursday 13 May 2021
Vaccination being carried out at the SKV School in the Chirag Delhi neighbourhood of the national capital. Photo: @msisodia / Twitter

The Delhi government’s COVID-19 vaccination drive commenced on May 3, 2021 to cover people under the 18-44 age group. According to latest reports, the vaccination drive is taking place at 301 centres housed in 76 government schools, which will expand to include 300 schools. Some corporation schools have also been included under the same programme.

Social media handles and pages are replete with pictures and stories highlighting the programme’s efficiency and smooth management, the friendliness of staff and personnel on duty and proper adherence to COVID-19 public protocols at these centres or schools.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, school buildings have been serving as key nodal points for public service delivery, as schools form essential constituents of a country’s social infrastructure. ‘Social infrastructure’ refers to physical infrastructure and assets supporting and facilitating essential social services covered under sectors like health and education.

A healthy, robust social infrastructure is critical to urban and rural development, the overall quality of life and society’s social capital. Eric Klinenberg, the author of Palaces for the People (2018), discusses how social infrastructure facilitates societal interactions.

How did schools facilitate COVID-19 relief operations? 

The Epidemic Diseases Act (1897) and Disaster Management Act (2005) were invoked after COVID-19 hit India. On March 24, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a country-wide lockdown to break the chain of transmission. The Delhi government then quickly converted some schools into night shelters to assist displaced, dislocated labourers seeking immediate refuge, food security and shelter.

The green, spacious compounds at the schools acted as safe shelters — with facilities like cooked food, uninterrupted electricity and drinking water supply and usable toilets. In collaboration with organisations like the Red Cross, some schools organised counseling sessions to mitigate the psychological shock in the wake of a ‘sudden’ lockdown. Many others hosted magic shows, recreational activities and yoga camps for labourers. In many others, tea and biscuits were distributed with the help of citizenry and civil society organisations. 

Other states too converted their schools into shelters and quarantine centres, helping the district administrations and people in general. A heart-warming incident was reported from Palsana in the Sikar district of Rajasthan. Here, a group of 54 painters housed in a school painted the entire premises, realising the walls and the compound needed fresh cleaning and fresh polish. The painters did this as an act of service; to express gratitude to the generosity of the villagers who let them stay and treated them to food and fruits.

The second wave of COVID-19 has wreaked havoc across the country. Realising the challenges of a failing health infrastructure — investment in health is just 1.26 per cent of the gross domestic product — many schools have been converted themselves into makeshift hospitals.

For instance, in Delhi, a school at Rouse Avenue was converted into a 125-bed full-fledged COVID care hospital. A private school in Ranigaon, Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh has been turned into a COVID-care centre with a facility of 50 beds catering to four-five villages. This week, Mount Carmel school in Dwarka, Delhi was converted into a COVID-care hospital.

Similarly, in Rajasthan, the school department is making arrangements to meet the oxygen demands of the state if the need arises. In the Kalburgi district of Karnataka, residential schools, colleges and hostels also serve as COVID-19 care centres.

The role schools have played in ensuring food security during the lockdown last year cannot be emphasised enough. Many schools are serving as community kitchens to this day, ensuring timely cooked food to the needy. Some schools in Purnea, Bihar are serving as shelters and community kitchens, in addition to other dedicated spots.

In Delhi last year, 588 schools functioned as non-public distribution system ration disbursement centres meant to cater to non-ration cardholders. Schools came to the rescue of the government’s food security programme. They stored food grains, managed ration distribution, maintained records, ensured social distancing and organised sanitisation drives.

The said scheme was successful due to the enormous investment in infrastructure undertaken by the Delhi government in modernising and upgrading physical amenities at schools over the last many years. 

Teachers, school and security staff as well as other ground staff were involved in the management and eventual disbursement of ration and food kits. The current vaccination programme also invokes a similar sense of gratitude to countless medical personnel, school staff, volunteers and police personnel, in addition to citizens adhering to COVID-19 protocols.

Traditionally, schools facilitate democratic processes and serve as disaster shelters

Traditionally, government and publicly aided schools and even private schools have served as necessary infrastructural buffers coming to the immediate rescue of people and governments in the aftermath of a natural disaster, an untimely event, or during a pandemic.

Schools evoke a sense of familiarity and recognition to communities, especially vulnerable communities seeking refuge. For example, school buildings in coastal and tropical regions worldwide have traditionally served as community shelters and evacuation centres. The infrastructural amenities, relative safety and security help safeguard dislocated communities against the impact of cyclones, typhoons, or hurricanes — depending on the geographies.

Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (2005), Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines (2013), Cyclone Mora in Bangladesh (2017), Amphan in Odisha (2020) and similar cataclysmic events have inevitably witnessed public schools transform into evacuation shelters and immediate relief and aid centres.

In Hawaii and Texas — regions prone to seismic activity, school buildings are retrofitted to withstand massive earthquakes. However, it must be noted that internationally, it is recommended to use school buildings and premises that have proper sanitation standards and meet the global standards of safety.

Similarly, schools facilitate critical democratic and electoral processes — by serving as polling stations. In India, where by-polls and panchayat polls are a regular feature over and above the assembly or general elections, schools serve as safe, familiar and spacious spaces where people and crowd management can be organised with ease and discipline.

A region’s population is usually aware of a school’s location as they are familiar landmarks. One must remember the role teachers play in this regard. Without them, the facilitation of these processes is not possible. It is important to remember that in normal circumstances, schools also serve as training centres for Anganwadi workers, booth level officers, mass-parent teacher meetings, locations for entrance examinations and other educational programmes.


Schools, therefore, provide the required emergency infrastructure and function more as learning ecosystems. Through the Mid-Day Meal scheme, children have been nurtured and schools have played as key nutrition centres. Long-term investments in schooling infrastructure must, therefore, be made on a priority basis, as most relief measures are rolled out efficiently owing to well-maintained structures of schools and institutions. 

In the wake of COVID-19, such impromptu rescue plans were not possible, let alone a mass vaccination drive, had it not been for school buildings’ critical and social infrastructure investments. For instance, it is worth mentioning that during 2018-20, Rs 2,900 crore was committed to honing the infrastructure of Delhi government schools. An important exit strategy here will be to ensure students safe and secure return to learning environments nourished by these schools.

Finally, while delivering public service and public goods, it is worth noting how the buildings and premises act as essential messengers of public health and communication campaigns. Information, education and communication or IEC campaigns and wall paintings are essential tools for educating people while also beautifying the social spaces.

Swasti Pachauri is a social sector consultant who has worked as Prime Minister's Rural Development Fellow in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh, India 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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