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September 26, 2020

Rushing to reopen?

Opinion

September 26, 2020

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

After six months, since the government imposed a lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, students are back to their education institutions. They returned amid much anxiety from parents who discussed in great detail, on social media, if it was safe to send children to school. So far, only students of Grades 9 and 10, and college- and university-going students have returned to classrooms, officially at least.

But a number of private schools have called students of lower secondary and primary classes too, and sent fee vouchers. Already there is confusion. Under federal government orders, those attending lower-grade classes would be going back in phases over the rest of this month. A week after the first phases of schools’ reopening, the Sindh government conducted tests at several education institutions. By then, there was a 2.4 percent increase in Covid-19 cases in Sindh. The provincial government, then, decided to delay the reopening for lower-grade classes. The University of Balochistan closed for in-person classes after it reported a few positive cases. Amid the rumours of another school closure, dozens of schools in Sindh have been sealed.

Even as coronavirus cases climbed, Federal Minister for Education Shafqat Mahmood said that schools would not be shut down, given the losses already suffered by students.

Undoubtedly, education institutions cannot remain closed indefinitely. It is especially true in a county where almost 23 million children are already out of school and the literacy rate is one of the lowest in the world. However, the need for education has to be balanced against the need to safeguard health. Only two days after schools resumed, scores of schools and colleges across the country have had to be closed down or sealed after they reported Covid-19 cases.

At Riphah International University alone, 16 cases of the virus were detected. The institute has now been labelled a ‘super spreader’. In Karachi, the highly prestigious IBA suspended on-campus classes and announced additional precautions, but refused to comment on whether there had been any coronavirus case.

At the first phase of the reopening, there are already so many concerns about whether the decision was right. Things are likely to become more confusing for decision makers when primary and lower secondary classes reopen. For schools, it is already difficult to follow the government-mandated SOPs. In public education institutions, the resources to enforce social distancing measures simply do not exist. Many do not even have hand washing facilities. This is also true for smaller private schools. And, of course, it will become more difficult to manage when younger children are involved. It is virtually impossible for teachers to manage them.

The argument goes that children generally suffer mild Covid-19 symptoms. While evidence still coming in from around the world suggests that this is true, children are silent, asymptomatic carriers of the virus and can spread to high risk groups at home or school. In a relatively small number of cases, children with coronavirus also develop Kawasaki disease, a condition that is usually easily treatable, but if not treated or not diagnosed can lead to potentially serious cardiac conditions. A study from Pakistan, conducted at Lahore’s Children’s Hospital, and also published internationally, found Kawasaki-like symptoms in eight patients with Covid. We have no idea how many undiagnosed or unreported cases there may be. To protect both adults and children, we need to carefully monitor events over the coming days and do whatever is possible to prevent education institutions from becoming the epicentres of the virus.

The problem appears to be a global one. Multiple cases of Covid in some newly opened US schools have caused alarm. There, further complications have been created by the protests led by some parents against masks – they argue that it is cruel to make children wear them. While masks may seem uncomfortable, we should note that in East Asia wearing masks was normal, even for children, well before the Covid-19 pandemic for protection against air pollution and other common viruses. Certainly, masks were not considered inhumane or unbearable. Today, they are serving as a vital defence against the virus. A mask is simply an accessory that needs getting used to, and which can save us from several illnesses.

But masks or no masks, the reality is that education institutions all over the world are becoming places where the coronavirus is quickly spreading. It can easily spread in packed dormitories and halls. Even as some universities in the US opened, they were forced to change to online learning after Covid cases were reported. Israel was among the first countries to experience the problem of rise in coronavirus cases after reopening schools earlier this year. Germany, the UK and other countries in the region are facing the same problem. How children can be educated and kept safe at the same time has become a key issue.

Other issues are related to this one. Psychologists say it is essential that children go to school and associate with peers as well as experience the daily life at schools. In the UK, there have been warnings that in quarantine, children will miss out permanently on socialising. At the same time, some parents and children say that they are scared of getting the virus at schools. There are no apparent solutions at the moment.

The question that arises for Pakistan is a difficult one. This year, thousands of children didn’t take exams. Their grades were given on the basis of previous years’ results. Some say this has affected them badly in acquiring places at colleges or professional institutions. They and their parents hope then that there will be no further disruptions. So do the parents, teachers and students due to sit for important exams this year.

While we hope the almost miraculous success of Pakistan’s battle against Covid will be repeated at its schools, apprehensions are being voiced that this may be too much to expect. There is also concern that too many institutions were opened up to0 quickly. On last Wednesday (Sep 16), for the first time in over a month, Pakistan reported 700 cases of Covid. The number had till then been declining and had averaged around 300 cases. Naturally, this spike in the cases is being linked with schools’ reopening. The next few days will tell the full story.

The decision concerning schools was always a difficult one, as the federal government has already accepted. The reopening also coincides with the ‘flu season’, notably in colder regions. Is it fair to put the health of students, their families, their teachers and school staff at risk for the sake of education? The ethical dilemma becomes even more complex when we consider the difference between schools. While the most elite schools have staff in PPE carrying out health checks and doling out hand sanitizer, there are other schools that can barely afford soap. This inequality suggests that once again it is the poorest who will suffer and who are at greater risk of catching the virus. The answers are not easy to find, but life and welfare should come ahead of everything else. A year lost at school can be compensated. A life lost cannot be returned.

Email: [email protected]