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May 21, 2020

How to save education


May 21, 2020

The writer is a globally recognized Top 100 Education Leader (GFEL 2019), internationally published author in education and an edupreneur.

Long before the Covid-19 pandemic and its emergency closure of formal education arrived, Pakistan was living a learning crisis on account of 22 million out-of-school children and learning inadequacy at low-quality public and lower-end private schools.

In outcomes, children were already facing learning poverty like not being able to read and comprehend a simple age-appropriate story; the lag, according to a report, is of up to three years. Amidst this backdrop, the magnitude of damage caused by the rather simple ‘close schools and keep them closed until a miracle from somewhere arrives’ policy being followed in Pakistan is criminal negligence.

What’s happened to children in the last two months is not alright: students have largely stopped learning academic subjects; the decline is greater for preschool children not in focus; learning inequality has bloated further as students with means have had limitedly learning at home; mental health has started to suffer, due to isolation and lack of effective engagement.

If the government does not move toward an informed, intelligent, aggressive policy response for protecting our children's learning and mental health, the twin shocks of school closures and reduced household earning will have irreversible long-term costs to human capital in Pakistan.

According to a WBG Report of May 2020 titled: ‘The Covid-19 Pandemic: Shocks to Education and Policy Responses’, "left unchecked, this crisis could prevent a whole generation from realizing their true potential”. Schools will close for good, owing to lack of cash; investment in education will reduce and inequality will rise further as deprivation will be greatest for marginalized households. Decline in economic prospects could lead, in turn, to increase in extremist and intolerant behaviours: the combination of a youth bulge and poor prospects would prove a combustible mix and perpetuate the vicious cycle of poverty and inequality.

Not all is lost. If the government quickly recognizes the range of this crisis, it can mitigate the damage and, with the right planning and policies, create an opportunity to build a more inclusive, efficient, and eventually resilient education system. The WBG report suggests that policies to turn this around can be grouped in three overlapping phases: Coping, Managing Continuity, and Improving and Accelerating. To get this done in Pakistan, what do we know so far? Shooting from the hip is not good enough.

For the first phase, Pakistan closed formal education from March 15 till May 31 and has now extended closures till July 15 (online teaching adaptation via Zoom, covering about two percent of the student population, isn't outcome driven). The response priority should have been to protect student health and safety while understanding how Covid-19 will impact Pakistan, comparing it with what is happening across the globe, and preparing for it on-the-fly. We have had two months of observed emerging data from around the world.

The argument in favour of reopening schools is that young children are less likely to develop serious Covid-19 symptoms. A sampling in Iceland showed that those under 10 were far less likely to be infected than older cohorts. Another study of a boy who contracted the virus on a skiing trip indicated that none of those he came into contact with developed symptoms, including his siblings. The director of Sweden's public health agency has called evidence for school closures "very vague". Professor Viner, of Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, says: "the overall conclusion is that school closures are not the biggest players in controlling Covid-19."

Empirically, the data guidance is directed: South Asia (3,247 or 0.002 percent) has amongst the lowest death rates in the world (285,936) ie one percent of Covid death share vs 23 percent of global population share (May 13); the young are not disease vectors and are amongst the least vulnerable; epidemiologists believe that the disease may not be visible with no symptoms for as many as 80 percent of those contracting it. Therefore, prevention through lock-ins is no longer a viable strategy – its time has passed. Norway reopened kindergartens in April; Iceland and Sweden never closed their primary schools. Judging that the benefits outweigh the risks, Finland and France reopened schools recently.

Preventing student learning loss has neither been a policy or a priority in Pakistan and nor has there been any thought given to education challenges faced within disadvantaged households. As rules around social distancing are being gradually relaxed, protecting student learning and mental health is still not even a consideration.

Schools are being kept closed while parents flock to markets, with their children in tow. Is it the government's policy hypothesis that parents contracting disease through exposure will not transmit to their children at home but, somehow, children will face an exaggerated risk when they interact with other children, who are least likely to be vectors? This is ridiculously devoid of logic.

The importance of reopening education needs to be understood and prioritized. It may be a complex process in Pakistan, owing to the complete lack of ability to develop a well-thought-out process, and reliance on ‘gut-feel’. What must not be done is to source advice from the geniuses who are custodians of the in-shambles public sector education in Pakistan.

We have a serious challenge and we need seriously competent people to solve it – form a team of professionals with expertise in education, health, safety, administration, and financial skills; give them a mandate to develop SOPs for education reopening; debate and discuss it; and launch a staggered opening plan from mid-June.

Once students are back in school, learning recovery is a top priority, to prevent permanent impacts on the opportunities for children and youth. This will require a raft of measures from targeted reversing of learning losses to blended use of teaching and technology. These efforts will need clear direction to ‘education regulators’: stop nonsensical intervention and start gathering ‘creative policymaking ideas’ for improving our rotten system. The crisis offers an opportunity to start building an educational system that is stronger and more equitable than before.

After the pandemic, parents, teachers, media, government, and others should start considering a change in their perceptions about their role in the education process. For example, parents who have the ability to guide children at home may now have a better understanding of the need to work jointly with the schools to foster the education of their children – it cannot be simply "outsourced without participation beyond paying fee".

For schools, already facing unequal learning amongst students, owing to differences in parental support and access, equity gaps are more evident. Parents without the required educational background or means to support technology access for children have been helpless in the process.

The digital divide – the differences in access to hardware, connectivity, and the right software – has created an opening to inspire better education through expanding digital reach. Don't squander it.

Procrastination is not an option. The cost of keeping schools closed is too high. The Economist summarizes it rather well: “reopening schools may feel like a rash experiment with young lives. In fact, it is an exercise in risk-balancing. Schools are the most powerful engines of social mobility in any society. Let the children in, and let them learn”.

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