School as usual

September 13, 2020

As government declares victory against coronavirus, students head back to universities and colleges this week

Malaika, 20, is excited about returning to her university starting Tuesday after a six-month break. “Thank God, the coronavirus situation has been brought under control and we are able to resume our studies,” she says, showing her eagerness to celebrate this moment with her friends.

Educational institutions were closed across the country in March after coronavirus started spreading in the country. When infections started decreasing in July, the government decided to reopen educational institutions only after the situation was firmly in control. Schools and banquet halls are the last places to be reopened. Earlier, the federal government had eased down lockdown restrictions in several phases for other businesses. Mass gatherings are still prohibited.

On September 7, the federal government, following consultation with the provinces, decided to reopen the schools and universities from September 15 and primary schools from October. The final decision on the reopening of the institutions came in a meeting chaired by Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood and Dr Faisal Sultan, the special assistant to prime minister on health.

Addressing the media after the meeting of the inter-provincial education ministers’ conference, the federal minister said that higher education institutions - universities, colleges and vocational institutes - would be reopened from September 15 (Tuesday).

“Students of Classes IX to XII will also return on September 15, in the first phase. A week later, on September 23, Classes VI, VII and VII will be allowed to return to schools following a review. Primary schools will reopen on September 30, in the last phase,” he said.

“The National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) carried out research and a wide consultative process was started involving expert panels, think tanks, etc, in which the government looked at international and regional trends before reaching the decision. This is a huge decision. I thank parents and students for waiting and spending the past months with patience. They were difficult times but everybody was patient.”

However, he warned that the government will be forced to “take action” whenever standard operating procedures (SOPs) were not followed by an educational institution. He urged parents, teachers and administrations to cooperate with the authorities, adding that everyone had to play their part to ensure success against coronavirus.

“Other matters, including a change in the schedule for examinations and course work, will be decided as things move forward. This means we will open all these institutions in 15 days if things remain okay. The decision also applies to madrassas,” he said.

Speaking after Mahmood, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Faisal Sultan said that it was important for schools to reduce the density of students in classrooms and laboratories.

“If a class has 40 students, we would like to break it up into two days or shifts. In this way, 20 students can attend classes at a time,” he said, adding that this would keep the spread of the infection in check.

Dr Sultan said the reason for taking such precautions was to ensure that students could be seated at a reasonable distance from one another. “This is only possible if the classes are broken up into smaller batches of students,” he said. Stating that the face mask had an “integral role” in curtailing the infection, Dr Sultan requested parents to ensure that their children wore masks when they went to attend classes. He urged parents to cooperate with the managements of schools and colleges as well to work unitedly to defeat the infection. “Parents should make sure that if their child is sick, he/she stays at home as their coming to school can infect other people,” he said.

He said that out of all the steps taken to reopen industries and restaurants after the decline in Covid-19 infections, this was the biggest step the government had taken.

“All public and private schools in the Punjab will open with alternate days schedule,” Education Minister Murad Ras later announced. “All Public and Private Schools are to allow only 50 percent of students on a particular day. No double shift on a single day will be allowed.”

Saeed Ghani, the Sindh education minister, also declared that not all educational institutions in the province would open on September 15. In the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Education Department decided to give coronavirus tests to staff and students of all schools. According to the recommendations, Health Department teams will visit public and private educational institutions to conduct random tests.

School principals are to ensure that the class strength does not exceed 25. Schools must arrange classes on alternate days to compensate for restrictions on strength. The body temperatures of people entering the institutions will be checked. There will be a ban on organising assemblies or special events.

According to the guidelines finalized in the ministerial meeting, there would be no facility of public transport I n the early weeks after reopening of schools. Parents are supposed to pick and drop their children. All students will be screened upon entry by the school management. Social distancing, hand-washing, and wearing of facemasks will be ensured. The governments has also decided to reduce the number of students in a class by dividing it in groups and teaching them on alternating days. Every student attending school in-person would have to get tested for coronavirus within two weeks. Schools will not be closed for winter vacations.

Many parents and school-owners say that the crisis is not over yet. Any mishandling or carelessness after reopening of schools may cause a second wave of the Covid-19 in the country. At the moment, the number of corona virus cases in the country is falling.

“Pakistan has been lucky in managing the pandemic. Now, we are reopening schools,” Dr Sultan, the PM’s special assistant, told the media. He said the virus mostly hit people between the ages of 35 and 45. He said the children were least affected by the virus according to studies in various countries. “However, we have decided that if there are corona virus positive cases in a class in a school that class will be closed for a few days. If there are some cases in different classes in one school, that school will be closed down for a certain period,” he added. He said it was the utmost responsibility of parents and school administrations to make sure that precautionary measures were taken effectively.

Students like Maliaka are quite aware of the situation and are ready to take all safety measures. “We fully realize that if we do not take care, this virus can spread and there will be another long break,” Maliaka says, adding, “And we cannot afford this long gap in our studies.”

Such excitement is also visible in school-going children, who have also been missing their schools, playgrounds, and friends. “We will wear masks. We will not shake hands. We will not hug one another. We will not mix up and play together but we request you to reopen our schools,” Sakina, a six-year-old student of Grade I, says.

Whether this reopening turns out to be the right decision will be clear in the coming days. The biggest responsibility now lies on the school administrations, parents say. Private school have been demanding reopening of schools for several weeks, claiming huge financial losses.

According to a recent report of United Nations, the Covid-19 pandemic has “created the largest disruptions in the education systems in history” impacting as many as 94 percent of student population worldwide. Almost 1.6 million students in more than 190 countries across the globe were affected by the closure of education institutions since March this year. In Pakistan, it is estimated, the closure of schools disrupted learning pursuits of over 40 million students. Out of them, most were unable to get education via online methods due to various reasons and challenges of financial resources, equipment, and internet accessibility.

On August 27, the NCOC had suggested that all educational institutes in the country be reopened with a top-to-bottom approach — that is, universities first, then colleges, high schools, and so on) — and on a rotational basis. The meeting was attended by representatives of educational institutes — including public and private sector institutes, as well as madrassas — to reach a consensus on the opening of various institutes from university to school levels.

Japanese Ambassador Matsuda Kuninori, last week, praised Pakistan for its successful handling of corona virus pandemic including its decision to reopen educational institutions. “The reopening of educational institutions in phases after a long break due to the corona virus is a welcome step and it is hoped that students will be back to their schools, colleges and universities very soon,” a statement by the ambassador read.

Japan has continuously offered support for improving Pakistan’s educational infrastructure through the provision of school buildings, teaching materials and training to promote schooling for the youths in Pakistan including refugees and girls.

On September 9, The Federal Directorate of Education (FDE) issued further guidelines for the school staff and parents before reopening of the federal government (FG) educational institutions.

In this regard, an FDE spokesperson said that a set of SOPs would have to be followed. He added that the principals had been directed to ensure that the class strength did not exceed 25 students. “All schools must arrange classes on alternate days to comply with restrictions on strength. As per the SOPs, the body temperatures of people entering the institutions would be checked and they would be sanitised. There would be a ban on organising assemblies or mass events.”

“The parents have been advised to ascertain that social distance is maintained by school van drivers. They have been urged to send their children covered with facemasks. The parents have been urged not to send their children to schools if they complain of cold, fever or a runny nose.”

The spokesperson said that the students feeling sick for two-three days must undergo coronavirus tests. The official said that parents must inform the institutions if their child tests positive for coronavirus.

The writer is a staff member and can be reached at   [email protected]

School as usual in Pakistan after virus infections decline