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January 17, 2021

A school that survived terrorist attacks succumbed to Covid-19


January 17, 2021

The low-fee Naunehal Secondary School in Karachi’s District West emerged thrice after being bombed by terrorists, but the financial crunch caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has forced it to be shut down permanently.

Located near Kati Pahari in Islamia Colony, the school had been reopened in October 2019, six years after terrorists had forced it to be closed over co-education.

Ignoring the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) initial threats, the school’s owners Abdul Waheed and Syed Latif had continued running the educational institution with the same unwavering dedication.

A few days later, however, TTP terrorists bombed the school, causing severe injuries to Latif. “At the time the incident took place in 2012, I was inside the school discussing the TTP’s threats with my friend Waheed,” recalls Latif.

After being injured in the bomb attack, Latif decided to leave the city. His friend Waheed, however, was unwilling to let terrorists gain any ground. He persisted amid the threats until 2013.

In May that year, the school was again attacked by terrorists. This time Waheed lost his life while his younger brother and daughter suffered injuries.

“At that time, Islamia Colony was a Taliban stronghold, and the law enforcement agencies were also helpless against them, which is why the attackers easily escaped.”

The school management tried to reopen the school four days after Waheed’s murder. But the Taliban attacked it for a third time with a hand grenade. Fortunately, no loss of life was reported in the incident. The school, however, remained closed for almost six years after that.

Latif returned to the city in 2016 and started social work, as the law enforcement agencies had already cleared the area of terrorists. “I reopened the school and approached parents to send their children, but very few of them agreed.”

He could hardly manage to run the school because more funds were needed for the institute’s smooth operation. In 2018, however, some philanthropists promised him funds to run the school.

After the assurance of the donors, Latif inaugurated the school again in September 2019, bidding farewell to the tragic past to welcome the future. But a new beginning was not so easy.

On February 26, 2020, the government ordered all educational institutions in Sindh to be closed after Pakistan’s first Covid-19 case was reported in Karachi. The pandemic came at a time when Latif and his team were about to make a fresh start.

He runs the school for no profit. Around 10 per cent of the students receive free books, stationery and uniform, while only 50 per cent of the parents pay a nominal fee.

“I’m not interested in making money from the fees. The amount we collect barely meet the expenses, including salaries of staff members, payment of utility bills, and maintenance and other expenditures.”

The donors provided financial support from September 2019 to September 2020, but the administration of the school once again ran into financial troubles because of the second wave of Covid-19. “It’s quite embarrassing for me to approach the donors for funds again and again. I have decided to shut down the school.”

While Latif isn’t happy about the announcement, he has no other choice. “I can’t bear to see the school that Waheed and I had started in 2004 to be closed forever.”

He said that it wasn’t an ordinary school. “It’s a place where my friend took his last breath, where many of our loved ones and blood relatives suffered threats and injuries — it will remain a sad chapter of my life.”

Latif’s school is not the only educational institution that has been closed forever due to financial constraints caused by the pandemic. Some 300 low-fee private schools have been shut down permanently in Karachi alone.

The All Private Schools Management Association (APSMA) and the All Sindh Private Schools & Colleges Association (ASPSCA) said that a majority of these schools had been running in underprivileged areas of the city.

They said owners and administrators of hundreds of other constituent schools have been approaching them for financial assistance, but the associations are not in any position to help them and save the futures of thousands of their students.

They pointed out that some 12 private school associations are operating in the province. They also pointed out that permanent shutdowns of schools will raise the number of out-of-school children if the authorities concerned do not take any concrete measures.

“As an association, we only provide legal assistance and technical support, and help the member schools improve teaching and learning activities,” said ASPSCA Chairman Haider Ali. “We can’t address the financial issues of every school.”

He said his association is gathering data of the schools whose owners are unable to run their institutions after the suspension of educational activities during the second wave of Covid-19.

He also said that around 500 low-fee private schools across the province will not be able to reopen. He, however, pointed out that his association has not finalised the data of closed institutions yet. “Such extensive work needs time to complete.”

Agreeing with Ali, APSMA Sindh Chairman Syed Tariq Shah said that low-fee private schools keep closing for good because they have to pay the rent, salaries, utility bills and taxes out of the collected fees.

However, he pointed out, parents have been refusing to pay the fees for the past nine or so months, while none of the authorities has been taking these issues seriously.

He said school owners have also been frequently reporting dropouts, the rate of which has been estimated to be between 20 and 25 per cent of the enrolled students. He warned that this will keep increasing the number of Pakistan’s out-of-school children.

Quoting Unicef’s statistics, he said that with 22.8 million out-of-school children, Pakistan is ranked second on the list of countries where kids are not getting an education.

“Private educational institutions are helping the state provide access to basic education, but the authorities have turned a blind eye to the vulnerable units struggling to survive the current crisis.”

School owners who recently closed their institutions for good said they had been facing a financial crunch because parents had refused to pay the fees.

“We sent them reminders, but instead of paying the fees, a number of them took their children out of our school,” said Habibullah, who had been running his school in Qasba Colony.

He had rented a building in 2015 to start his school. According to the usual rental agreement, he was responsible for paying the monthly rent, utility bills and maintenance expenses.

“Our school was not one of those institutions that is established to make money. We just wanted to provide the children of the area access to basic education.”

He said that when educational institutions were closed for the first time last year in view of the outbreak of Covid-19 cases, “we were somehow managing the expenses. However, the second wave proved more challenging for our school”.

“Moreover, the uncertainty about the reopening of educational institutions forced us to close our school permanently because we have no money and there is no hope that any government agency will provide us financial assistance.”

Another school owner named Muhammad Yousaf, who had been running a school in the Ranchore Line neighbourhood, said that the cost of operating a low-fee private educational institution is too high.

He said that such schools are generally run in underprivileged areas, where if they do not operate according to the daily routine, the parents, who mostly belong to the working class, do not pay the fees.

“Whenever we asked the parents to pay the tuition fees, they argued why they should pay anything if the school was closed. This was one of the main reasons that forced us to close the institution permanently.”