A conversation with educationist Faisal Bari on the government’s policy of opening educational institutions in several phases
The News on Sunday (TNS): How exactly will a phased re-opening of educational institutions help curtail the spread of Covid-19?
Faisal Bari (FB): Phasing can help in certain situations. First, if it allows SOPs to be tried and put in place as we go along. Second, if we get relevant information on spread of the virus and keep monitoring it to see if there is a large increase anywhere so we can shut down in that area (micro-shutdowns) or more broadly delay further opening for some time. The National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) did say they might, this time round, monitor things at a city level and even resort to closing/opening of schools at the city and area level.
TNS: What do you perceive the government’s rationale behind the phased opening is?
FB: The rationale behind phased opening, as far as I can surmise, must be first, to see, as opening happens, how much of a blip this creates in the positivity rate and in the spread of the disease. Second, to allow for transport and other facilities to adjust over time in accordance to increased numbers. Third, to allow schools and other institutions time to try out and get standard operating procedures (SOPs) in place. However, the time lag between the phases is small. So, there might not be much information that we can get from one phase to the next. Lastly, I think there was significant pressure on the government, from various quarters, to re-open schools. There was also awareness of the learning losses and disruption to education. This needed some response. So, by phasing and letting high schools, which are the smallest number of educational institutions that we have, go first; the government was seen doing things at the same time as they were pushing back opening primary schools as much as they could do.
TNS: Is phased re-opening a better alternative than online classes for primary schools?
FB: Initially it was said that young children do not get Covid-19 as much and do not get as sick. Later it was said that younger children can and do become carriers. Some information also showed that younger children can get very sick as well and can develop, it seems, complications from Covid-19. But I am not a medical expert so I do not know what the final call is on how susceptible children are or what the risk tradeoff is. What is clear is that there will be some risk to children, teachers, staff and family members. And since we are not very good at implementing SOPs, we have seen that the risk will always be there. On the other hand, it is also true that there has been a major disruption in education. Online classes are much harder to manage for children than for adults. Even in adults we do not, yet, have enough evidence in terms of how good online education is and how much impact online education has on learning. With younger children and their learning through online classes, the data is poorer. And, it is also the case that most children, other than the ones in elite or up to middle fee schools, do not have good access to internet and electronic devices and have issues with online classes. So, learning does get compromised if we keep schools closed and move to online learning.
TNS: Is the policy of phased re-opening also something adopted at the international level?
The point is to work out what combination works best for a system, locality, school, or a group of children at a particular time.
FB: It has been practiced in many places and usually in combination with many other policies. Phasing can help in some cases with monitoring spreads and with perfecting SOPs before a larger opening and so on. It can also help in managing pressure on hospitals and other health facilities in case there is an increase in the spread of the disease.
TNS: What other steps can be taken to make phased openings more effective in terms of controlling spread of the virus?
FB: We have to ensure SOPs are implemented in schools and educational institutions. We have to do more testing so that if there is a spread anywhere we can address the issue rapidly before the spread becomes too large. We have to be good with micro-shutdowns. We have to bring the vaccine into the country as soon as possible and make it widely available.
TNS: The NCOC decided on phased re-opening after wide consultation. What should have been the key factors determining the decision made through this process?
FB: The key factor in the consultation must have been the need to balance disruption to education and its cost. These considerations could be in various forms, whether in terms of learning losses and fear of dropouts or in terms of business losses to private institutions, and the need to ensure that students, teachers, and their families are not exposed to the spread of the disease. When numbers were increasing at the start of the second wave, this balance got tipped in favour of closing educational institutions. Now, the government feels it is better to start opening them, with SOPs, but in a phased manner, to manage the spread while the situation is monitored as the openings happen.
TNS: According to Dr Faisal Sultan (special assistant to the prime minister on health) the objective behind phased openings is that “the number of students on one day can be reduced”. Do you believe phased re-opening can achieve this objective, especially with higher education institutions coming under a single ambit according to the policy?
FB: No, phased opening is not about reducing the number of students coming into an institution on any given day. A lot of our primary schools are stand alone. They will be either open or shut, phasing does not control how many students enter these schools. And anyway, on the first of February, when all institutions will be open, how does phasing reduce the number of students?
TNS: Is there an alternative policy that you believe would be a better choice when it comes to upholding the delivery and quality of education in the country during a pandemic?
FB: Phasing is just one policy. We need many other policies to manage education in a pandemic. Making internet available across all of Pakistan, improving access to devices for facilitating online learning, using radio and television for educational programming, improving quality of teaching of both synchronous and asynchronous delivery, using formative instead of summative assessments, implementation of SOPs in educational institutions, allowing schools to have alternate-day attendance, having classes outside in the open when weather permits, and so on. These are all ways of managing education and ensuring learning for children. There are many more ways as well. The point is to work out the combination that works best for a system, locality, school or a group of children at a particular time. Our policy making tends to be slow and rigid, with little local level innovation and responsiveness. This, more than anything else, limits our ability to ensure more effective delivery of services to our children.
The writer is a staff member