Crisis response has three phases: pre, in and post. We never made any long-term preparations for a pandemic in any meaningful way, that much we already know.Shorter-term, when news of Covid-19 broke...
Crisis response has three phases: pre, in and post. We never made any long-term preparations for a pandemic in any meaningful way, that much we already know.
Shorter-term, when news of Covid-19 broke in January and China took drastic steps and gave the world about an extra 30 days to prepare for what was coming, the federal government was still sleeping. Now that Covid-19 has made landfall, the organs of our state are seen scrambling, firefighting, reversing and contradicting one another. Much has been written about how the left hand, a province, does not know what the right hand, Islamabad, is doing.
Several countries in our region have managed to go from school closings, to offices working from home, to closing/ cancelling non-essential venues/ events, to lockdowns, to curfews, while still maintaining the production, supply, distribution and delivery of essential goods and services without confusion or backtracking. This was not achieved by throwing money at the problem, but by having well-thought-out plans, prepared in peacetime, at the ready. The Pakistani state’s response is a demonstration of unplanned firefighting.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the spread of Covid-19 is affecting the education sector in Pakistan, and how various schools are dealing with the school closings. Since then, there has been plenty of reporting on this topic. Therefore, while we are still in in-crisis firefighting mode, today I want to walk through post-crisis issues in education that we need to plan for right now.
Earthquakes and monsoon floods are so frequent in our country that over the years we have developed SOPs for those situations, – but not for pandemics. The time to plan for pre and in-crisis has long passed, but while we are still in its midst, we still have a few months to prepare for the post-crisis scenario.
For example, now is the time to plan for training, SOPs, and budgets necessary for disinfecting schools, especially those being used as quarantine facilities. Now is the time to plan a communication campaign to allay parental concerns around child safety when they return to schools. Now is the time to plan teacher training for hygiene and health services in a post-Covid-19 world. Obviously, some of these will require cross-departmental cooperation between the health and education departments. Now is also the time to start thinking about remedial/ accelerated learning due to missed school lessons. Now is the time for donors and the private sector to review and redesign their plans in anticipation of changed educational needs.
It may be too much to hope for in a country like ours, but some children might need some psychosocial support when schools reopen, what now looks to be after the summer. As I wrote earlier, some children can be at greater risk of neglect and abuse during this crisis.
Extended school closures also have the effect of pushing children on the verge of dropping out of school, over the edge. Pakistan has several informal programmes for out-of-school children that are desperately trying to raise the literacy rate. These are barely keeping pace with the population growth rate, as evidenced by our literacy rate, which has hardly budged the last few years. The current round of school closings could reverse a lot of those hard-fought gains of the last few years.
Schools in several communities have continued classes through various means that were available to them. Essentially, the Covid-19 pandemic pushed thousands of schools into piloting their approaches to online education. Just as important as all the items I listed above (and more exciting to me professionally) is the need for new measures to collect data, and study the efficacy of all the online learning techniques that have been piloted during this period. This would make for a very rich data set for study that could inform educational policy in our country for years to come.
Longer term, the education systems will need to adapt post-crisis, and we will have to think about strengthening online education and the infrastructure it requires, to better cope with similar crises in the future. It may even be worth considering picking a month of the school year and declaring it ‘Online Learning Month’: One month every year in which all learning at schools happens online. This could serve as a fire drill of sorts, to ensure schools are ready to switch to online learning at a day’s notice during future emergencies.
I recently spoke with Secretary Elementary and Secondary Education Department Nadeem Ahmed Chaudhary, who shared that his department is already planning on some of these items. For example, the department is considering designing an academic acceleration programme after schools reopen to help children make up for lost time. Chief Planning Officer Hashmat Ali, of the KP Elementary and Secondary Education Department, shared that disinfection planning, SOPs to better prepare schools for any similar scenario in the future are on his to-do list before the crisis is over. He also shared that the department is bringing stakeholders together to put together a plan of action for post-corona school response. This kind of forward thinking will be crucial in determining which school system emerges better and stronger post crisis.
People who are in positions of power, and whose responsibility it is now to deal with it, are saying this pandemic was unforeseeable. That is not true. Putting fortune tellers, astrologists, Whatsapp scholars and charlatans aside, I want to leave you with the words of Nassim Nicholas Taleb from his 2007 book ‘The Black Swan’:
“As we travel more on this planet, epidemics will be more acute – we will have a germ population dominated by a few numbers, and the successful killer will spread vastly more effectively. I see the risks of a very strange acute virus spreading throughout the planet.”
The writer is an independenteducation researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in
Education from Michigan State University.