Challenged by consequences

The authorities are prepared to reopen schools but are they prepared for the consequences?

Following an announcement by the government that educational institutions will reopen by mid September, preparations are under way to devise a set of SOPs that can be followed so that the plan goes without a hitch. The only caveat is whether health indicators will improve enough to allow the resumption of routines. A big question is whether simply putting together some SOPs is enough.

Dr Athar Osama is a public policy analyst, and advisor and the founder/CEO of Pakistan Innovation Foundation and the National STEM School. He believes that framing the SOPs is not the problem but their implementation will be.

“I don’t think the government can ensure that they are followed. Right now, less than 20 percent of people are following the SOPs for public places,” he says. If adults do not follow the guidelines set out for them how could children be expected to do better, he asks.

Pakistan is currently the 12th worst-hit country in the world by Covid-19. According to an ASER Pakistan report, in 2019, 39 percent of government schools did not have safe drinking water, 41 percent did not have proper toilets, and only 22 percent received grants. Come September, reopening could unleash chaos on these schools.

While the situation is vastly different for many private institutions, even those may not be able to put up effective enough barriers against infections.

Muzna Masood, principal of the Ida Rieu School and College for Blind and Deaf, has similar concerns.

“In my 25 years as an educator we have never faced a crisis like this one. My institute devised its own SOPs as soon as the pandemic began. Our preparedness is not the issue,” she says.

Masood says that there are too many variables at play. “This is not a containable problem. I can ask students to sit at a distance, ensure that they are given masks, and that they are maintaining hygiene, but what about when they’re coming to and from school? Do you expect their van drivers to make four trips instead of one? I don’t see it happening.”

She says that while the number of students at Ida Rieu can be managed, the same cannot be said for all schools in the city or the country.

Dr Baela Raza Jamil, the CEO of the Idara e Taleem o Aagahi, is of the view that the culture within the education industry has to change.

“People associated with schools need to be trained to understand their obligations in terms of social distancing for health and hygiene. Not just in terms of children, but also in terms of the parents and community they interact with,” she says.

Changing attitudes is going to be tricky. The narrative on the pandemic has been marred by inaccurate statements from the government. To say that the government has been unable to keep up with it would be an understatement. Covid-19 has so far surprised everyone.

Dr Faisal Bari, an associate professor of economics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS), says that the speed at which the virus is evolving necessitates a flexible and evolutionary approach.

“I’m not sure what SOPs the government can develop when we don’t have full knowledge of the virus. Even the WHO said earlier that there was no air transmission but now that has changed,” he says.

The virus has been unpredictable so far. “If they make SOPs, they will need to evolve quickly. I don’t think the federal and provincial governments are good at making rules and regulations that respond quickly to situations,” adds Dr Bari.

At the heart of the issue is the government’s ability to enforce the rules it makes. When the country went into a lockdown a couple of months ago, there was widespread chaos. It started with mosques refusing to shutdown and was followed by conspiracy theories many used to ignore precautions.

“The education sector is exceptionally large. It includes madrassahs and schools – private and public. Then the fees vary within the private sector. There are schools with many resources and schools that cannot even provide books, much less masks,” says Dr Bari.

Despite the challenges, private educational institutions have been pushing for schools to reopen. The All Pakistan Private Schools and Colleges Association does not even want to wait till September.

But Dr Bari says the way to tackle this pressure is to provide them a relief package instead of agreeing to reopen.

“I know of a fairly large institute in Boston that is opening up in September but they are planning on conducting 8,000 tests a day with mandatory testing every 7th or 10th day for everyone. That’s one university,” he says. Pakistan, meanwhile, does around 7,500 tests a day for every million people.

Dr Jamil is optimistic.

“When the APS incident happened, the SOPs put in place for security were implemented,” she says adding that if the government has the will to do it, whatever SOPs they devise could just work.

The bigger issue is how seriously the problem is viewed.

“This cannot be business as usual. We have failed to take the education emergency seriously –whenever there’s a flood the first thing we do is turn schools into a shelter,” she laments. Education simply doesn’t seem essential enough.

“There is extensive data on schools, and the government has collected it. They know what’s missing, they know what to do,” she adds.

She suggests a system where the volume of children dictates how schools are managed.

Dr Osama, on the other hand, says that the government should try to implement a blended learning model, which offers a mix of online and offline learning.

Dr Bari says that dismissing the threat by saying that only a small percentage die from the disease is harmful.

“We shouldn’t trivialise the matter by saying that the percentage is low. When you look at the size of the population, it comes to millions,” he says.

If children do not develop symptoms, they can still become carriers. A school typically supports children from several neighbourhoods. A single school could become the source of infection for a large population.

Producing half-hearted SOPs or failing to ensure that the SOPs are followed properly can be a time bomb. The authorities need to see just how big a risk they are prepared to take.

“The thing is, no matter what the government says my children are not going to school in September. What is better? A bit of a loss of learning or a family member dead?” asks Dr Osama. If schools reopen that is a question every parent will have to ask themselves.

The writer is a journalist and researcher based in Lahore.  She tweets at @luavut 

Coronavirus: Authorities are prepared to reopen schools but are they prepared for the consequences?