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August 12, 2020

The paradox of reopening schools

Opinion

August 12, 2020

The writer is a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan, and chairperson SDGs Child Rights Special Committee.

According to a UN report, the Covid-19 pandemic has “created the largest disruptions in the education systems in history”. The closure of learning spaces impacted nearly 94 percent of student population worldwide.

Almost 1.6 million students in more than 190 countries across the globe were affected by the closure of education institutions when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic in March 2020. Subsequent preventive measures to contain the spread of this contagious disease were taken; closure of schools, colleges and universities was one such step. Pakistan was among those countries.

The closure of schools in Pakistan disrupted the learning pursuit of over 40 million students of schools and colleges. Pakistan’s education system comprises 317,323 institutions (public & private), accommodating 50,292,570 students and 1,836,584 teachers.

Out of these about 10 percent or less than five million students of high fee private schools have been lucky enough to resume their learning through online tutorials. Whereas the rest – about 35 million children – enrolled in government and low fee private schools have been abandoned by the system, as management of these schools neither have the resources nor the capacity to launch individualized online courses for their students.

Initiatives like the ‘Tele-school’ program by Pakistan Television and ‘Taleem Ghar’ by Punjab have though been launched with good intentions, but practically have failed to help resume continuity of learning of about 90 percent students due to numerous technical bottlenecks at the level of transmission and the receiving end.

Covid-19 has further widened the quality gap between public and private schools, increasing the number of drop-out and out-of-school children in the country. Unfortunately, Pakistan has the world’s second-highest number of out-of-school children (OOSC) with an estimated 22.8 million children aged 5-16 not attending school, representing 44 percent of the total population in this age group. In the age group 5-9 years some five million children are not enrolled in schools and after primary school age, the number of OOSC doubles, with 11.4 million adolescents between the ages of 10 and 14 not receiving formal education.

The Ministry of Federal Education & Professional Training has anticipated in an Interprovincial Education Ministers Conference the reopening of schools by September 15, 2020. At this point, no disaggregated data is available on the number of children affected by the coronavirus in Pakistan but during April in the Islamabad Capital Territory only 2000 children aged 1-16 have been reported corona positive.

While the government is mulling over reopening schools in September 2020, it is pertinent to ensure that foolproof preventive measures are in place before this decision is taken. First, teacher and students’ testing, periodic assessment on surface contamination as well as water infection, and SOPs for school visitors be clearly defined. Simultaneously, Pakistan does not produce any child specific anti-Covid gear. As scientists pace towards testing Covid-19 vaccines, the trial periods seem long and exhaustive. Considering the resources required to ensure effective SOPs are followed by school administration and the financial implications thereof, a practical solution to the reopening of schools is still vacillating.

Since it is an epidemic, the federal government should help provincial education departments to procure preventive materials for decontamination of school buildings, provision of hand-washing facilities, including masks and sanitizers etc for students and teachers. Schools should not be reopened until all preparatory work is completed and safety mechanisms are in place, especially for the lower grades as expecting social distancing and masks requirements from them is unrealistic.

While efforts for social distancing and banning intermingling of students and teachers are not enforceable at the school level, the fear of infected children multiplying at schools and homes is genuine. It is critical to explore how much and to what extent children can contribute in transmission of infection.

Second, although it is essential to understand real issues around how schools can be reopened safely, the solution and strategy should be devised with the aim of keeping community transmission at the lowest – following effective suppression by a broad-spectrum of preventive measures and SOPs. The government cannot play whack-a-mole via ad-hoc dealing with schools, workplaces, or infections in hospitals.

The government needs to focus on evolving a comprehensive long-term strategy that is holistic and all encompassing. Concurrently, we cannot turn schools into yet another political football in this game. Based on real-time data, risk assessment indicators and the trend of transmission in Pakistan, we will have to make decisions that are in the best interests – educational or health – of our children. Schools can only open safely if we suppress the virus in our communities.

Third, the financial implications of reopening schools amidst Covid-19 without any budget for schools to test and acquire protective gear and sanitization. Will the government in case of public schools and private sector school-owners bear the responsibility of a pandemic breakout in students and among teachers and staff?

It is key to consider the financial conditions faced by households these days. With limited income options due to the pandemic, parents are out of businesses and jobs, struggling for livelihood. The additional financial burden of full school fee, purchase of computer systems, smart phones, extended internet packages for online education courses sum up as an excruciating cost for parents. To further exacerbate, more charges will be thrown on parents from both public and private, which needs to be discussed with stakeholders.

Hence, it is pertinent to let all stakeholders be heard, and especially students and parents. A look at the global experience of reopening schools is essential. According to an article in the New York Times recently, Chicago, US's third largest school district, was planning on a hybrid model to begin the school year remotely by sending children into classrooms two days a week until teachers and parents opposed it due to an increase in Covid-19 cases.

New York City, with low pandemic transmissions, is all set for in-person classes but faces other sets of logistical and political problems. There are not enough nurses to staff these schools, and teachers threatening a sick out. Teacher unions have indicated that they will sue over reopening.

Kenya chose a very drastic option to cancel the entire academic year and make students repeat grades, since most students from rural and poor households were not able to connect to or comprehend "teaching online". Those children who have no access to facilities at home would fall behind when classes resume next year.

Israel reopened schools in May after Covid-19 was contained but new infections quickly increased and rippled out to students’ homes and neighborhoods. The resurgence eventually forced some 240 schools to close down and more than 22500 students and teachers to quarantine.

In a recently published UN policy brief on ‘Education during Covid-19 and beyond’ the recommendations given to mitigate the potentially devastating consequences of the pandemic are for governments and stakeholders to suppress transmissions, and plan thoroughly for school reopening as there has to be confidence that children will not be infected from schools leading to local and national outbreaks.

Moreover, the recommendation is to deal with the complex challenge of reopening schools to ensure safety for all; plan for inclusive reopening; listen to the voices of all concerned including parents of both public and private school children; listen to the voices of all concerned and coordinate with key actors, including the health community.

It seems that the opening of schools on September 15 in Pakistan is a hasty decision and until all preparations and SOPs are shared with the public, the decision should be halted. In any case, children missing out education from March 2020 need to repeat their grades - if not, their foundations will potentially remain weak. The reopening should not be initiated for all classes but phase-wise from grade five onward for few weeks and then go on the younger students.

The Covid-19 crisis and unparalleled education disruption is far from over. Countries have started planning to reopen either based on grade levels and by prioritizing exam classes or through localized opening in regions with fewer cases of the virus. According to the UN, about education during Covid-19 "given the continued violence of the virus, the majority of countries surveyed in May-June 2020 had yet to decide on reopening date".

The government of Pakistan needs to recognize that these decisions carry enormous social and economic implications and will have lasting effects on education, children and the youth, on their parents and societies as a whole.

Twitter: @MehnazAkberAziz