Back to school?

11 Jul 2020

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AFTER a nearly five-month closure due to Covid-19, schools and universities in Pakistan are scheduled to reopen on Sept 15. Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood made the announcement at a press conference, saying that educational institutes will reopen with SOPs in place. Mr Mahmood also said that authorities are mulling several options: scheduling classes on alternate days, conducting classes outdoors, training teachers, recalling students to hostels with maximum 30pc occupancy and enforcing mask wearing and social distancing. All this, however, is contingent upon the lowering of the coronavirus infection rate. If the crisis is not curbed, Mr Mahmood said, schools and universities will not open.

There is no doubt that the closure of educational institutions has been a huge setback for students all over the world. In Pakistan especially, where internet access in many areas is limited, virtual classes have been tremendously difficult to hold if not impossible. For young children, too, the disruption in learning has had consequences for their emotional well-being. Therefore, the authorities’ concerns regarding school closure are legitimate. However, taking any decision before the Eidul Azha holiday, which is a couple of weeks away, and Muharram, may not be feasible as there is a fear that infection rates will rise during this time. These fears are evidenced by the government’s repeated statements that Eid gatherings and flouting of SOPs will undo the lower reported figures. The prime minister has appealed to the public to mark Eid with simplicity and take precautionary measures. Unfortunately, no SOPs are being enforced at gatherings in animal markets. As a result, one infectious disease expert has predicted a frightening scenario of 5,000 new infections per day. If these violations continue and infections rise, the government should, as it has already indicated, reconsider its decision. Even when the time comes for schools to open — whenever that may be — the planning needs to be meticulous. Temperature checks, distancing, mask wearing and rigorous training of teachers on SOPs will be essential. A safe system will have to be chalked out for those using public transport to get to school. Children who are immuno-compromised or who live with a vulnerable family member may have to be offered an alternative to physical attendance. Teaching staff should be given paid sick leave, adequate PPE and quick testing. This is an uncertain time and uncharted territory for all educational institutions. However, authorities must support students and faculty by providing and enforcing clear guidelines.

Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2020