Monday September 27, 2021

Safe reopening

September 16, 2020

Millions of children across Pakistan will be returning to the classroom over the next few weeks. As the number of coronavirus infections continue to decline in Pakistan, like smart lockdowns, the country has taken a courageous decision to reopen educational institutions.

The realization that children must continue to learn and the benefits of learning in a classroom environment, is the underlying factor behind this all-important decision. Strict adherence to SOPs against the spread of the coronavirus, reopening of schools in a phased manner and a continued public campaign reminding people that the pandemic is not yet over even though the number of cases may have reduced, are priorities to be ensured. When emergencies strike, children are among the most vulnerable. Their safety, health and education are prime concerns. Same were the considerations early this year, when Covid-19 cases began to spike in Pakistan. To contain the spread of the coronavirus and protect children, educational institutions were closed and have remained so for nearly six months. The government and its development partners, and many public and private sector institutions, initiated education initiatives through TV, radio, online, and print-materials to keep children learning. However, the majority of children in Pakistan do not have access to these options, nor did all institutions have the resources to provide them.

For Unicef, reopening of schools has been a priority in line with the best interests of children but balanced with paramount public health considerations. We must look at the benefits and risks across education, public health and socio-economic factors, in the local context, using the best available evidence. It is also a given that as the schools reopen, school life will not return to business as usual. Safety of children commuting to school, while in school and returning back to their families, must be ensured through strict adherence to the SoPs prescribed by the government – wearing a mask, social distancing, limited number of students in a classroom, frequent handwashing with soap and use of hand sanitizers, and staying at home in case of having any symptoms.

Closure of schools in Pakistan has had a high cost. Around 300,000 education institutions from pre-primary to higher secondary have remained closed since March affecting more than 40 million children enrolled in these institutions, with millions more students enrolled in higher education The learning process for these children either stopped or was reduced to learning through TV, radio or online, and that too only for those with access.

Considering that Pakistan had nearly 22 million out-of-school children prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, the socio-economic impact of school closure in terms of accumulated learning losses could cost the country decades of hard work and progress made in the field of education.

According to Unicef estimates, $140 million will be required for the basic measures to ensure safe reopening of schools in the country if all schools are to be opened with physical distancing and strict application of Infection Prevention and Control measures. This includes $100 million required to ensure Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) facilities in public schools whereby children could access water, soap and sanitation facilities.

As Pakistan takes a cautious leap forward towards recovery and normalization through phased reopening of schools, Unicef along with its other education partners emphasises the need for urgent and increased investment in education. This is essential not only to bridge the existing learning gap but also to prevent the learning crises caused by Covid-19 from becoming a learning catastrophe.

The silver lining to the education crises caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is the stimulus for innovation it has created within the education sector. Innovative approaches have been adapted for continuation of education and training through distance learning using TV, digital media and the internet. The crisis has also reminded us that besides children and adolescents, learning must continue for teachers and other education personnel who have a pivotal role in the entire process. The need for better training in new methods of education delivery and support is the need of the hour.

Globally, Covid-19 caused unprecedented disruption to education rendering more than 1.6 billion children in 190 countries out of school. Children and youth in every corner of the world have been affected, but the most marginalized have been the hardest hit, magnifying the deep inequalities in education. For these children, the crisis could have lifelong impacts including exposure to neglect or abuse at home and the loss of vital school-based support systems and relationships with teachers and friends. Hence, as the schools reopen, one of the major goals should be prioritising the most vulnerable and marginalised children.

As schools reopen in Pakistan, concerns about an increase in infection cases loom. This fear is real, and many parents may be doubtful about sending their children to school at least for the first few days. Countries where schools had to be closed again after reopening due to high risk of children getting infected and carrying the virus to their families serve as reminders for caution, care and preparedness. Measures to counter any such eventuality in Pakistan while ensuring that the process of learning continues, scaling up remote learning opportunities for all children, especially those living in hard-to-reach areas, is imperative. A major step to this effect would be to prioritize home learning packages, TV, and online modalities, including investment in internet connectivity in remote and rural areas.

Unicef commends the phased reopening of educational institutions in Pakistan and supports the efforts of relevant government ministries and education departments to reopen schools safely and ensure a conducive environment wherein all children learn and stay healthy.

The writer is the Unicef representative in Pakistan.