Tuesday April 23, 2024

Low-cost private schools may not be able to survive COVID-19 crisis

By Arshad Yousafzai
April 01, 2020

Muhammad Ibrahim Khan, owner and administrator of a private a school in Karachi’s Malir Sector-15, has been in self-isolation at home since the COVID-19 scare that caused the sudden closure of educational institutions across Sindh.

Though he hasn’t tested positive for the coronavirus, his most pressing concern these days is how he will pay the monthly salaries of more than 25 teachers and non-teaching staff in his employment.

During the month of March, he received a circular from the Directorate of Inspection & Registration of Private Institutions Sindh (Dirpis), announcing that educational institutions across the province will be kept closed until the end of May to protect the students from infection and minimise the spread of the virus.

“The official notification for the closure of schools came at a time when almost all private schools were trying to wind up the academic year and preparing students for their final examinations,” he said.

He also said that due to the drastic turn of events in the wake of COVID-19, private schools have been unable to manage their accounts to pay their staff’s salaries in view of Ramazan and the following Eid-ul-Fitr.

Khan said elite schools and campuses of the largest schooling systems can easily meet the needs of their staff and manage other expenses, but low-cost schools — a majority of which operate in remote areas — can’t do so.

They rely on the collection of monthly tuition fees ranging from Rs100 to Rs1,200, as most of such institutions are housed in rented buildings, he added. “As per the rent agreement, we’re bound to pay advance rent of the buildings every month. Apart from these expenditures, we also have to pay utility bills, taxes and salaries.”

He said parents living in low-income neighbourhoods are mostly daily-wagers who don’t have enough resources to pay the school fees of their children. As most of the businesses have been closed because of the current lockdown, these people have been rendered jobless, he added.

Likewise, he continued, when the schools received closure orders, the administrators were directed not to collect advance fees in compliance with the Sindh High Court’s decision.

“If the teachers aren’t paid in this critical situation, they’ll leave their jobs. Those who don’t, won’t be able to perform as well as before. All of this will affect the quality of education at the smaller institutes of learning.”

Similarly, said Khan, owners of the school buildings will demand rent and companies providing utility services will ask for the bills to be paid, so it’s very likely that this situation will force many low-cost schools to shut down.

Grim numbers

The data available with Dirpis shows that more than 45 per cent of the registered schools across the province are low-cost institutes of learning. The owners of all of these institutions are likely to be facing financial problems just like Khan.

The Dirpis website shows that 6,324 schools — 1,040 pre-primary and elementary, 4,954 secondary, 85 higher secondary and 245 O- and A-level — are registered in Karachi Division. At these institutions 1,407,822 pupils are enrolled and 56,575 people, excluding the administrators and non-teaching staff, are employed.

Similarly, 2,303 schools — 1,318 primary, 866 secondary, 114 higher secondary and five O- and A-level — are registered in Hyderabad Division. At these institutions 449,155 pupils are enrolled and 19,690 teachers are employed.

There are no O- and A-level schools in Mirpurkhas Division. However, 829 institutions in all are registered there, with 184,575 pupils enrolled and 7,989 teachers employed.

In Shaheed Benazirabad Division also, there are no O- and A-level schools. However, 1,035 institutions in all are registered there, with 230,955 pupils enrolled and 9,238 teachers employed.

Sukkur and Larkana divisions have 1,910 registered institutions, but none of them is an O- and A-level school. The number of pupil enrolment there is 426,306 and the number of teachers employed there is 17,052.

Financial crunch

Educators, private schools’ associations and even government officials believe that the financial crunch caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will force a number of low-cost schools to shut down permanently.

They fear that this situation will either increase the number of out-of-school children or direct many of the students to get enrolled at public educational institutions, which are already overcrowded and lack basic facilities to serve the pupils already there.

They say there is no example available in the history of Pakistan from which they can gauge the financial damage expected to be caused to the private sector education due to the coronavirus emergency.

They believe that many private schools are in a vulnerable position because educational institutions will remain closed throughout Ramazan and the Eid-ul-Fitr festival, and since they haven’t collected fees, they can’t pay salaries to their staff.

They predict that the circumstances will further deteriorate the financial power of those running low-cost schools, and that they will need the government’s assistance, which unfortunately, is not available or possible, give the current state of affairs.

Interest-free loans

Last week, the Private Schools Management Association (PSMA) had written an open letter to the prime minister, the federal finance minister, the provincial education minister and the State Bank, seeking interest-free loans for the schools operating in remote areas.

The letter issued by PSMA Chairman Sharaf-uz-Zaman reads that administrators of low-cost private schools can’t collect fees from parents because of the sudden closure of educational institutions, and that it’s almost impossible for the owners of such schools to pay utility bills, staff salaries and building rents.

He demanded that the federal government include the owners and employees of private schools in the expected relief package because they’re also assisting the government in educating millions of children across the country. Therefore, he added, it becomes the government’s responsibility to support such institutions in the current crisis. The PSMA has also appealed to the Sindh government for financial assistance.

Low-cost school owners find themselves in a double bind: if they ask for fees from daily-wager parents, it may increase the dropout rate and they may have to shut down their institutions permanently; if they don’t, they will definitely go out of business.

Moreover, these parents may not be able to send their children to other schools, so it’s not in anyone’s interest to let low-cost private school owners fend for themselves in such circumstances, especially when around 23 million children already don’t go to school and public institutions can’t accommodate every kid.

Regarding his letter, Zaman said that hundreds of low-cost private schools have been closed by their owners in the past because there hasn’t been any financial aid programme for such institutions.

He said that in the current circumstances, low-cost schools have suspended academic activities to keep their students safe and to assist the government. Thus, he added, owners of such institutions deserve interest-free loans and encouragement from the government.

Meanwhile, the Private Schools & Colleges Association has also demanded that the government provide them with financial assistance during this crisis brought about by the COVID-19 emergency.

No programme yet

Dirpis and the school education & literacy department say that the concerns of low-cost private school owners will be taken into consideration after things return to normal. However, they regretted, there’s no financial support programme under consideration at present.

Dirpis Registrar Rafia Javed said that when Sindh was hit by floods in the past, the provincial government had compensated many private schools. The same formula may be considered for them after this crisis, she added.

Zubair Memon, media coordinator for Sindh’s education minister, said the same thing, and added that right now the government is trying to deal with the coronavirus crisis, so other issues will have to be discussed later.

He made the assurance that whatever solutions are found for those problems, the education department will take action on them to provide relief to the affected parties.

‘Pay your staff’

On March 30, Dirpis issued a circular directing the administrators of all private schools to issue only monthly fee vouchers to their students, saying that the matter had already been decided in the steering committee’s meeting before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of schools.

Dirpis stated that if any school were to offer fee concessions to its students, the generosity would be highly appreciated in such a critical time. However, stressed the directorate, salaries of the teaching and non-teaching staff must be paid during the closure of schools, and none of the employees should be let go.

If any school is found in violation of these orders, warned Dirpis, their administration will be dealt with in accordance with the law, which may lead to suspension of the violating school’s registration.