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November 29, 2020

Covid-19’s primary lessons


November 29, 2020

What could a federal minister of education do to instantly earn great applause and a chorus of thankfulness from students all across the country? Well, our Shafqat Mahmood was the recipient of such approbation when he announced – marvel the irony of it – the closure of all educational institutions for a specific period.

I am referring to the reverberations of this decision that were felt in the virtual world of social media. I learnt about it through reports broadcast and published in the media. It was stated that Pakistani social media “went crazy” and was filled with memes praising the minister.

A recounting of the funny expressions or images that were posted by the students may provide some comic relief in these dark times but I am not doing that. Nor do I wish to be critical of this playful conduct of young netizens. But isn’t it sad that in the wake of this second wave of the pandemic, all educational institutions have to be closed?

And, is this the right decision? Obviously, opinions on this issue are divided. So many factors have to be taken into consideration. It would also depend on the relative importance of education in the overall strategy of protecting the nation from the perils of the pandemic. Hard choices have to be made in the context of immediate as well as long-term consequences of particular steps that are taken in an emergency situation.

Incidentally, there is a personal reference to why I have chosen this theme. My awareness of how other countries are dealing with these matters is supplemented with a daily dose of information about the state of affairs in the two countries that are most severely affected by the second wave. Our elder daughter, Sheherbano, lives in southern California and is a medical doctor. Our younger daughter, Aliya, is in Italy.

Our teenaged grandson and granddaughter who live in Los Angeles are condemned to remote lessons and they sorely miss their freshman and middle-school freedoms. But our six-year-old grandson in Monza, near Milan, is regularly attending his primary school in an environment that is extremely restrictive and even prohibits families from visiting each other’s homes.

Talking about Italy, the schools were open when the second wave began. Then, in early November when the lockdown measures became more strict, high schools and senior classes of middle schools were shut down. However, primary schools remain open even in the designated ‘red zones’. Clearly, they have their reasons as to why schools up to a certain level should remain open in these perilous times.

Looking at it in a global framework, many countries in Europe have demonstrated their priority for education in their policymaking to deal with Covid-19. There was a report in The New York Times about one month ago with the heading: ‘Why is Europe keeping its schools open, despite new lockdowns?’

Apparently, this focus on education is more pronounced during the ongoing second wave because in many countries, schools were the first to be closed down when the pandemic struck in spring. It is noted that Europe’s latest wave of restrictions to stop the spread of coronavirus have largely avoided the closure of schools.

In France, schools were exempt from wide-ranging restrictions. Irish Prime Minister Michael Martin said that while his country could no longer avoid restrictions, despite the detrimental impact on the economy, it was vital that schools remained open. “We cannot and will not allow our children and young people’s future to be another victim of this disease”, he said. “They need their education”.

The essence of this is the mounting concern around the world that the pandemic is doing lasting damage to the academic and emotional development of an entire generation of children. Distance or online learning even in the rich and advanced countries is not seen to be enough.

Why are Pakistan students, who have the facility and the skill of having a presence on social media, celebrating the closure of their educational institutions? Shouldn’t they be unhappy about it? After all, going to a school or college and socialising with their peers is so much more valuable than struggling with their lessons in a virtual space.

I know that in Italy, students of high schools are protesting against the closure of their institutions. There have been cases of students sitting outside the closed doors, trying to do their schoolwork in freezing weather in a gesture of protest. Aliya sent me a video of one such protest in Milan.

A report was published in the leading Republica newspaper on Wednesday about protests against distance learning. In Milan, some teachers organised lessons in front of the school yard. A group of students and teachers gathered in front of a school to ask for a safe return to the class. A professor of philosophy delivered his lecture on Socrates and Marx while a dozen students sat on wheeled benches and others were connected from home. One protest sign said: “Don’t shut the schools, if the ‘essentials’ are not being shut”.

Would this argument also be valid for Pakistan? Somehow, there is no clarity on how the constitutional right to free and compulsory education for our children is to be protected in the present circumstances. For that matter, the situation was already very dismal before the pandemic’s nightmarish intervention. Now, it is getting worse. So, why is education not our national emergency, calling for drastic and innovative measures to meet this challenge?

Considering our digital divide and dreadful social inequalities, there is a limit to how much we can benefit from online learning. To begin with, where is the plan to mainstream the children who are out of school – and their number must be growing in the present circumstances? It would not be possible to calculate our educational losses in quantitative terms. But there is no doubt that the situation is alarming.

As I have said, to open the schools or not is a difficult question. But here is an opportunity to go back to the drawing board – or the blackboard of the classroom – to make a new beginning.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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