Education in times of pandemic

March 7, 2021

Schools resume at full capacity despite a rising number of new cases

The federal government’s decision to allow school operations to resume at full capacity has been marred by confusion. The decision is not being implemented in seven Punjab districts, including Lahore, and in Sindh.

Talking to The News on Sunday, Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood said, “We had decided to open schools in February… the decision is being implemented from March 1. The number of active Covid-19 cases is decreasing and vaccines are now available. We can also control the spread of virus through strict implementation of safety SOPs.” He said that Pakistan could not afford a disrupted or sluggish education system. “We have suffered huge losses and cannot afford further damage to our education system,” the minister said.

The Sindh government immediately opposed the decision of the federal government allowing schools to resume regular classes five days a week from March 1. It said the announcement had “created confusion among the students”. Sindh Education Minister Saeed Ghani said that in accordance with the decision of the provincial government, schools will only allow 50 percent attendance for now. He said regular classes at full strength could not be resumed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Emphasising the importance of following the coronavirus standard operating procedures (SOPs), the minister said school going children would be required to maintain distance in the classrooms. “How can children maintain a safe distance if we allow 100 percent attendance? Once the pandemic ends, all children will be allowed to go to school.” He said that even though the federal education minister had allowed 100 percent attendance at schools, the Sindh Education Department had its own steering committee responsible for taking decisions for its schools. “The decision to reopen schools was also taken by the committee,” he said. The minister reminded people that while the number of new Covid-19 cases has declined in the province, the pandemic has not ended.

On March 4, the country reported the current year’s highest number of deaths from Covid-19 in a single day. The National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) reported that 75 patients had died in a single day. A total of 78 deaths had last been reported on December 21. More than 2,000 people are under treatment at various hospitals in the country, while the number of active cases stands at 16,648. So far 258,266 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Sindh; 172,054 in the Punjab; 72,424 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; 44,373 in Islamabad; 19,049 in Balochistan; 10,243 in Azad Jammu and Kashmir; and 4,956 in Gilgit-Baltistan.

The Punjab government, too, is going against the federal government’s decision. It has issued a notification for not starting regular classes at schools in Lahore, Gujrat, Multan, Rahim Yar Khan, Sialkot, Rawalpindi and Faisalabad on account of high rates of virus spread in these districts. According to the notification, schools in these districts will follow the 50 percent attendance routine at campuses and 50 percent online till March 31.

“The education sector has been seriously affected by Covid-19. If children catch the virus at their schools, they can infect their elders. The government has a duty to ensure strict implementation of Covid-19 related safety SOPs at schools and other places to avoid a further rise in the number of cases. We are left with no other option,” says Young Doctors’ Association Punjab president Dr Salman Haseeb

Education Minister Murad Raas says that the schools in the seven districts will work according to the 50-percent presence policy while the rest of the districts will return to their pre-Covid-19 routines.

Talking to TNS, All Pakistan Private Schools Federation president Kashif Mirza says, “Opening schools with on-campus classes is a good decision, but we see a lack of coordination between the federal government and the provinces. Sindh has not accepted the decision and the Punjab has only partially accepted it… Pakistan’s education system is suffering on account of issues like a single curriculum, Covid-19 and controversial policies. Out of the 49 million school going children, only one million can attend classes online. The rest of the students, in case of online education, are deprived of this basic human right. How can we keep schools closed for months in such circumstances?”

On the other hand, Punjab Teachers’ Association secretary general Rana Liaquat has welcomed the decision. He says the 50 percent presence attendance policy for seven Punjab districts is justified. “A spike in Covid-19 cases in the seven marked districts is significantly more prominent than the other districts of the province. Therefore, we cannot afford 100 percent presence in on-campus classes. I think it’s a wise decision by the Punjab government.”

In Lahore, a majority of the schools is following the safe policy of 50 percent presence on campus and 50 percent online. Schools with large class rooms and premises are also following a similar policy.

TNS checked with several schools and observed that they have sent notices to parents to inform them that the 50-50 presence policy will continue till March 31.

However, doctors have a different point of view about the government’s decision. Young Doctors’ Association Punjab president Dr Salman Haseeb says, “The education sector has been seriously affected by Covid-19. Children catching the virus at their schools can also infect their elders. Now, it is the duty of the government to ensure strict implementation of Covid-19 related SOPs at schools and other places to avoid a further increase in the number of new cases. We are left with no other option.”

Most parents and students are quite happy about the decision. Many say they feel that online education is not an effective way of learning.

Laraib Ali, mother of a five-year-old boy, says, “I send my son to school to gain knowledge, discipline and good behaviour. Unfortunately, he is now away for his books and spends more time on online games.” She says she is anxiously waiting for the school to start to working normally. “I have been paying a huge amount as a school fee for the last nine months and getting nothing in return; neither quality education for my son nor satisfaction for myself that my son’s educational base is getting stronger.”

Abbdullah Sindhu, 12, a student at a public school is extremely pleased with the decision. He says, “I always enjoyed participating in class activities. The online system does not allow us to interact with teachers and classmates properly.” Abdullah is of the opinion that Pakistan is not a suitable place for online education. “We learn more in on-campus classes. I will request the government and the school administration to never close the schools come what may.”

He says his school is still following the 50-50 policy but he has requested the administration to permit him to attend every class on campus and the request has been granted. This speaks of his thirst for knowledge and love for his school.

The government had earlier closed down schools in November 2020 for a second time. Earlier, educational institutions had faced a six-month closure from March to September 2020 due to Covid-19.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, and researcher. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher

Schools reopen: Education in times of pandemic