A mixed bag of expectations

While teachers are concerned over safety protocols amid plans to reopen schools, students are over the moon

Ever since the nationwide closure of educational institutions in March, the question occupying the minds of all stakeholders is when and under what conditions will educational institutions reopen. Recently, Federal Minister of Education Shafqat Mehmood suggested September 15 as a tentative reopening date for educational institutions. This was followed by the release of a phased reopening programme by the Higher Education Commission (HEC). However, in all these discussions, the voices of teachers and students, especially those in schools, have largely been absent.

Safety, whether personal or collective, is on everyone’s radar, especially due to the practical limitations of complying with the SOPs. Speaking to The News on Sunday, Ramsha*, a primary school teacher at a Trust School, says: “I have trouble keeping students in their seats at the best of times. How will I ensure social distancing in the class, in the playground and in the canteen? I would rather teach on Zoom than expose my students.” This concern is echoed by many other teachers favouring an extension in the closure of educational institutions and continuation of online learning.

Aisha Usman, an assistant professor at a government postgraduate institution in Lahore, says she is aware of the pressing need to return to normalcy but not “at the cost of life itself”. “All those instances of public gatherings in the recent past have shown us one thing: it is still dangerous out there,” she says while referring to the spike in Covid-19 cases when the lockdown was temporarily eased.

Neha Khan, a teacher at Soar Stem School, Lahore, is also of the same opinion and says that “schools should not reopen until the virus goes away”. For Mariam Khan, an O level teacher at a private school, there are additional concerns such as inadequate compensation for staff members in institutions offering multiple shifts. “If schools run in shifts as suggested by the government, teachers may be expected to put in double the time and effort for the same salary,” she says adding “and if they protest they may be replaced.”

In this climate of uncertainty regarding educational institutions being a safe place to return to, many teachers favour the continuation of online teaching and learning. At the same time, they also stress the need to improve the quality and standard of the online learning experience while identifying issues of access and equity.

Sadia Anwar, an educator at a private college in Gujranwala, highlights the importance of prior planning. “While we have to be optimistic, we also need to be prepared. If the situation does not improve over the next few months, we must have alternative plans in place as the future of a whole generation is at stake.” This sentiment is also echoed by Mariam Khan. “Rather than trying to reopen schools, the focus should be on making online learning more effective and efficient until it is absolutely safe to interact with others.”

“I know that the on-site education experience can never be recreated in an online environment. But unless they make campuses totally safe, perhaps by adding shields to desks and limiting the class strength, I would rather learn online,” says Anum Qureshi, a student.

In this on-site/ on-line debate, some teachers suggest a hybrid model consisting of online teaching with a few on-site sessions. Shazia Aziz, an assistant professor at COMSATS Lahore, is of the opinion that social sciences and humanities can be taught entirely online. “Whereas students taking lab-based and practical courses should be offered on-site lessons but with reduced number of students and/or alternate lesson days or timings so as to maintain social distancing,” she says.

But while a majority of teachers seem to prefer online learning despite its challenges, when it comes to students, especially those in schools, the excitement of meeting friends and engaging with teachers in person after a long gap supersedes the concerns for personal safety. Zohaa, a student at the Beaconhouse School System, is excited that schools are finally opening. “I cannot wait to see all my friends and teachers. I wonder if I will be allowed to hug my friends as we would be meeting after such a long time. I fear I won’t be able to hold back. ” Anushay, a student at Adabistan-i-Sophia, however, appears more aware of the situation: “It may appear impossible to maintain social distance but as long as the school reopens, I am willing to follow all SOPs because I have missed my friends and teachers so much.”

With responses such as “being free and out of the dark life of lockdown” and being able to “meet and play with friends”, students TNS spoke to appeared excited about the prospects of schools reopening. But as the country moves towards reopening, educators hope that when students are called back to campuses, their safety can be ensured and they can be provided a learning experience they missed during the online sessions.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

The writer is a distinction holder in children’s literature and literacies from the University of Glasgow, UK and currently works as a lecturer at UMT, Lahore. She tweets at @readlikematilda

A mixed bag of expectations: While teachers are concerned over safety protocols amid plans to reopen schools, students are over the moon