Friday July 01, 2022

Are we really ready to open schools? Part III

August 26, 2020

The writer is a freelance education policy, management and reform consultant

Based on the facts put forth in the first two parts (Aug 22 and Aug 24), it is stated that the conclusive scientific evidence needed to make a choice between opening or not opening schools, under continued Covid-19 conditions, is not available to policymakers.

By the same token, it has also been noted that our system is faced with quite a few fundamental and complex challenges that may possibly obstruct effective implementation of SOPs under which the schools may be asked to function. Due to these unfavourable conditions, it is helpful to set the expectations right and align them with the ground realities of the government education system.

With the above in the backdrop, the realities on the ground and available data suggest a phased approach to the reopening of schools. This is primarily because we simply do not have the capacity to accommodate all the students back to school at one time despite tall claims of strict compliance of SOPs. In order to minimise risks and learn incrementally, multiple phases of school opening should be staggered over time.

Another important area the policymakers need to look at is what precisely teachers will teach when the schools reopen. This is crucial as schools will practically start a new academic session with a time lag of about three months, if not more.

To support learning during the pandemic shutdown period, education departments delivered digital content to students through a number of different means. The delivery of content has been viewed by education experts with mixed opinions about its effectiveness. Some people have criticised it by saying that it has been a mere red herring and no learning has actually taken place. The favourable view is that there has been some learning of extremely varied degrees due to huge technological disparity in the country.

The fact is that there is no data to support either of the two claims mentioned above. In the absence of any evidence on the effectiveness of these contents in question, the picture is blurry and probably does not help policymakers decide about the baseline learning levels of the students. So, what should possibly be done to ensure the utilisation of the remaining academic time in the best possible way?

Between September 15 and the start of the next academic year, there are about 125 academic days. The content meant for about 230 academic days cannot be taught in the remaining days. Naturally, selective content will have to be taught. And the selection should be based on the principles of what is most critical to achieving the current grade level and what is most relevant to the future academic study of respective students. This should be supported by detailed study plans and relevant teacher support materials at the least.

The next important question is: who goes to school first – primary, elementary or secondary; boys or girls or both. The obvious answer is: those who need to be taught ‘face to face’ the most.

The government decided to close all schools on March 16. This also marks the season for board exams for Grades 9, 10, 11 and 12 in Pakistan. However, due to Covid-19, the government was unable to conduct exams for any of these grades, so they were sent to the next grades without any assessment. Those who were in grade 9 and 11 were promoted on the understanding that their grade 10 and 12 marks would determine their performance in grades 9 and 11 as well.

Unarguably, these students are at an important stage of their lives. For example, grade 12 students would compete for seats in professional colleges and universities which generally decides what they will do in life. They must undergo an external assessment because the government does not have any reliable reference to ascertain their performance in their respective grades. To create space for social distancing, students currently in grades 9 and 11 should be called in the second shift and all the classes should be staggered in smaller groups. So, all the students in secondary and higher secondary grades need to be given priority.

Unquestionably, overcrowding is a key challenge for primary schools. It may require a highly customised and localised approach to school opening. For instance, single teacher schools may only cater to one grade in one day depending upon the strength of the students. Some schools may need two shifts. In some schools, teachers may call students of a grade twice a week. Some in the morning and a few in the afternoon. Similarly, for elementary grades, the approach has to be a little more flexible. A few additional practice materials could be designed and provided for homework for these grades.

At the provincial level, to help teachers, meticulous academic plans could be developed and shared widely. For example, working based on scenarios with students coming once a week, or twice a week and so on and so forth. Where possible, additional digital contents could also be provided.

Above all, to ensure that all schools meet a minimum criterion for a safe school, the government must define what it means by a “Covid-safe learning environment”. Checklists should be prepared, and each school head should evaluate his/her school against the given criteria and submit a school readiness plan to district management. No school should be allowed to accept students unless it meets a minimum criterion of a ‘Covid-safe learning environment’. Evidence-based demand should be generated, and supplies and development budget must be provided accordingly. It is pertinent to mention here that hand washing must be made part of school routines and it must be followed without fail.

There is enough evidence from around the world that the role of communities has been instrumental in containing the spread of Covid-19. To this end, communities are somewhat aware of the SOPs and their importance. But school opening is going to be a new phenomenon and hence it should be dealt with separately. Therefore, the role of communities needs to be enhanced and they should be given the responsibility to track and report active cases around a school. Parents should be repeatedly educated on the early symptoms of Covid-19 and about their responsibility in such an event.

Furthermore, in order to engage communities effectively, a bottom-up communication plan should be developed, and mass media campaigns should be launched with support from the relevant and interested corporate partners. The campaign messages should be aimed at educating children and parents about Covid-safe school environments. Information, education and communication materials must also be printed in ample quantity and pasted outside each school and classroom at an appropriate height.

Undoubtedly, cleaning and disinfection of school premises and furniture fixtures are some of the most important and perhaps the most challenging tasks under these conditions. This becomes more challenging as most of the schools do not have dedicated cleaners, and this kind of cleaning needs to be performed as frequently as possible or at least twice a day. This cannot be performed without a collaborative and coordinated effort of multiple departments such as local government/municipalities, agriculture, and public health and engineering departments to name a few. In order to ensure effective implementation of SOPs for cleaning and disinfection of schools, deputy commissioners may be held accountable.

To conclude, it is evident that Covid-19 is a unique and adaptive crisis and is not over yet. Therefore, any move to open schools without full preparation might result in a bigger catastrophe. The preparation should not be merely restricted to the development and dissemination of a few documents and shifting the responsibility on people to act responsibly.

It should rather be a convincing act of leadership which takes ownership of reopening schools under a ‘Covid-safe learning environment’, and ensures that plans are aligned with the realities at the grassroots level and the needful is done to equip the system in the form of budgets, approvals, guidelines and positive space to take decisions to name a few. After all, the matter concerns the education, well-being and future of our children as well as teachers, staff and all their families.