Risks and fears of the spread of Covid-19 cannot be ignored as Pakistan prepares to reopen schools after six months
A consensus draft on safety protocols and measures is under consideration these days as thousands of public and private schools across the country gear up to reopen amid fears of Covid-19 spread.
Last month, an Inter-Provincial Ministers (of education) Conference (IPMC), decided conditionally to reopen schools and educational institutions with properly defined standing operating procedures (SOPs) from September 15 with reviews due in August.
Pakistan closed down all its educational institutions – schools, colleges and universities – on March 13 after a meeting presided over by Prime Minister Imran Khan decided to ban all public and mass gatherings – public meetings, schools, marriage ceremonies, park visits etc – after the virus started spreading in the country. A continuous extension in the closure of educational institutions from March has deprived students of formal education and created challenges for private institutions, administratively and financially. Online classes have faced technical and administrative challenges for both teachers and students.
The federal and provincial authorities believe that ultimately educational institutions will have to reopen with SOPs in place. A number of private schools’ organisations are seeking early reopening claiming that continued closure is causing a serious crisis for their sector with around 50 percent of private institutions fearing a permanent closure.
“We believe that this is not only demand driven but also need based. We have to do this after getting an assurance that the graph of the virus is continuously declining,” Syed Umair Javed, the federal director general of education, tells The News on Sunday. In the past two inter-provincial conferences, he says, all provinces agreed to prepare their SOPs and finalise a draft plan after reaching consensus with a tentative date of opening schools from September 15. He adds that the date has not been finalized and that there will be two more conferences before the said date to discuss the situation. The decision, he adds, will only be implemented if the declining trend in the spread of the virus is sustained and if health officials recommend reopening of schools.
“It is very challenging indeed and we have to take proper measures and ensure implementation of SOPs. The authorities will recommend safe numbers of students and staff with all the protective measures,” he adds.
He says ensuring the implementation of the SOPs would be the responsibility of respective provinces and authorities. In the two scheduled conferences, the government also aims to get data from the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) to evaluate the situation on ground. But he says in areas under a ‘smart lockdown’, schools will remain closed. He adds that earlier trends had shown a greater prevalence of coronavirus in big cities than in rural areas.
“Obviously, there are challenges and risks involved in reopening but ultimately we have to do this,” says Saeed Ghani, Sindh’s education minister.
Some of SOPs shared with schools, focus on the safety of children and changes in the schools’ administrative and academic systems to ensure that measures are taken to protect them from the virus. The SOPs suggested by the Punjab contain six thematic areas including student protection, school safety, academics, continuous professional development, assessments and communication strategy.
Some of the key measures include reinforcing use of masks or face covering – mandatory for all students; discouraging sharing of items amongst students that are difficult to clean or disinfect; teaching proper hand hygiene practices; and limiting physical contact among students. Regarding schools’ safety the primary goal is to prevent outbreaks in school settings after reopening. Some of the proposed SOPs include: extending school week to seven days a week; conducting schools in outdoor settings (where possible); ensuring sufficient ventilation in classrooms; ensuring thorough cleaning and disinfection of schools before they reopen; disinfecting and cleaning schools twice a day; not allowing school assemblies or gatherings with more than 10-15 students outside of class; no spectators for sports; and no contact sports or sports that cannot be played at a distance from others; ensuring mandatory distancing of 3 feet/1 metre (six feet/two metres is preferred); screening and management of sick students, teachers and other school staff; developing contingency plans to ensure continuity of learning.
“Obviously, there are challenges and risks involved in reopening but ultimately we have to do this,” says Saeed Ghani, Sindh’s education minister. “But we are working on a plan to ensure maximum protection.” He says for small private schools with a large number of students there are plans for calling students in on alternate days or starting shifts (morning/evening etc). He says schools in rural Sindh have their own challenges. “We are making efforts to have standard SOPs in place with local input to ensure safety of students and staff.”
Some of the challenges in reopening of schools include effective monitoring at supervisory level to ensure implementation of guidelines, ensuring hygiene at schools, and resource and infrastructure availability to comply with SOPs.
The challenges in reopening of schools are many but it is a collective responsibility.
The writer is a staff member. He can be reached at [email protected]