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September 16, 2020

As schools reopen

Opinion

September 16, 2020

When the first case of Covid-19 was detected in Karachi on February 26, the first thing the Sindh government did was to close all schools and other educational institutes across the province.

Some called it a hasty decision while most appreciated it calling it a wise move. A few days later, schools and other educational institutes all over the country were closed as more cases were reported in other parts of the country as well.

Some people still questioned the justification of closing educational institutes while all other businesses along with recreational facilities were open.

Now, after six months of closure, schools have reopened. While some were in favour of reopening, many have been sceptical and fear that reopening schools at this stage will result in a resurgence of the pandemic; they are citing warnings of a second wave of the virus which is feared to be more serious.

Those in favour have been concerned about children missing the school year and students being left behind. While some schools arranged online classes, it has not been possible for all schools, especially those catering to the lower social strata and government schools, as most students attending these schools do not have easy access to the internet or own computers.

Of course, education is important and concern for students’ time is genuine, but one cannot forget students’ safety. While the government has made efforts to allow children to resume education as soon as possible, it has to consider the safety of students, teachers and other staff as well; on the other hand, it is also concerned about keeping Covid-19 under control. The phased opening, the government claims, will give it a chance to review the situation and see if things are okay.

Seeking the cooperation of parents, teachers and school administrations, Federal Minister for Education Shafqat Mehmood has cautioned that the government will be forced to “take action” whenever it feels that the SOPs are not being followed at an educational institution.

While it is satisfying to see that the government is taking all measures to protect our children and avoid a resurgence, a close look at the SOPs raises many questions.

All schools are required to maintain a certain level of hygiene such as regularly disinfecting all classrooms and ensuring availability of soap and sanitisers for all staff and students to wash hands, and ensuring proper waste disposal. Schools are also required to make arrangements for checking students’ body temperature with a thermal gun. School managements are worried that it will increase their operational cost. Even if the school managements bears the additional cost for the safety of their students and staff, we cannot forget the fact that a lot of schools, especially in rural areas, do not even have the facility of running tap water; how are these schools going to manage hand washing at regular interval as per the SOPs?

A point of most concern is ensuring physical distance, with six feet between desks, and making children wear face masks throughout the school day. Most parents and teachers are of the opinion that it is almost impossible to make young children observe social distancing and maintain a distance of six feet, especially when they will meet their friends after such a long time.

Then there is the matter of space; in the small classrooms that most schools have it is not possible to place desks six feet apart. The government has recommended staggering classes in order to reduce the number of students in a room or lab. This means either the schools divide the students in two shifts – morning and afternoon shifts – or half of the students come one day and half the other the next day. It needs a lot of working out, though it is not impractical.

Making children wear the face mask is going to be the toughest task. Even adults feel uncomfortable wearing a face mask for a long time; how can children be forced to do so. One can explain things to older children, but it is not possible with young children. If teachers are given the task to ensure wearing of masks their energies and time would be spent on this, diverting their attention from teaching.

With all this as context, some private schools have said that they will not open until things are to their level of satisfaction. They do not want to take risks with the health of their students and teachers. One hopes that the government has no objection to that. It is also hoped that schools will not take disciplinary action against children whose parents did not feel comfortable in sending them to school at this stage.

But what one is most concerned about is government schools or those in less developed areas, where the infrastructure is in shambles, and enforcing SOPs can pose to be a major challenge. One hopes that, as mentioned, the government is vigilant enough to detect non-compliance and takes action.

Compliance to SOPs is the only way to ensure continuation of the education process and at the same time ensuring that we succeed in beating Covid-19.

The writer is a freelance journalist. Twitter: @naqviriz