Proceed with caution

Published August 26, 2020
The writer is a public policy adviser and Fellow at the think tank Tabadlab.
The writer is a public policy adviser and Fellow at the think tank Tabadlab.

AS many countries grapple with the Covid-19 fallout, Pakistan is now uniquely positioned to report a sustained low incidence. This has sparked conversations of unpacking how ‘smart lockdowns’ and the governing architecture guided by the NCOC contributed to its success. With business activities returning to pre-Covid levels and urban centres bustling with people eager to return to some semblance of normalcy, the next big decision centres on the reopening of schools on Sept 15.

Evolving evidence from countries that have attempted to reopen schools clearly highlights a substantial risk of new outbreaks. Hundreds of thousands of cases attributed to school reopening have resulted in re-closures in many instances. While some age groups are at lower risk, it is crucial to understand that the risk of infection cannot be fully mitigated. Schools operate in an interconnected ecosystem where many sub-systems intersect at once — teachers, staff and students. In each sub-system there are unique conditions regarding households, social networks, modes of transport and the degree of precaution being exercised. Bringing all these environments into a single school premises during a pandemic we don’t fully understand entails considerable risk.

But despite the risks, the reopening of schools in some form is inevitable. Pakistan, like many other countries, faces a chronic learning crisis. Students lag behind their peers in South Asia and lower-middle income countries when it comes to learning outcomes and minimum proficiency levels. As a simple approximation, out of every 10 children attending school, more than six don’t learn what they should have.

Read: Coronavirus pandemic leaves education in limbo in Pakistan

Continued school closures will aggravate this learning loss. This will have huge explicit and implicit costs in the short and long term, and have an impact on Pakistan’s development trajectory. While many countries have resorted to distance and blended learning models, gaps in digital access and readiness limit the effectiveness of such modes in Pakistan. To put learning back on track and avoid further losses, schools will need to reopen.

To put learning back on track, schools will need to reopen.

A coherent and effective policy and administrative framework is essential to devise a physical and learning dynamic that can serve to mitigate learning losses and keep students, teachers, staff and communities safe. School reopening can be greatly non-uniform under our federal structure, and it is important to align objectives, principles and standards to ensure that provincial autonomy is preserved while achieving a consistent and structured approach to ensuring safety for all. Administrative capacity at the federal, provincial and local tiers will need to be enhanced to not only plan, monitor and respond proactively but also to improve service delivery in these uncertain times.

The guiding policy objective for school reopening should be safety for all. A combination of personal protection in the form of masks, premises hygiene through regular disinfection, and density management for uncompromised physical distancing is essential. However, each school is different. There are huge disparities in terms of infrastructure, facilities, enrolment and administrative capacity across public and private schools in urban and rural areas. It will be crucial to anchor decisions of reopening in the readiness and preparedness of the school as a singular entity to allow for a safe return to education.

School reopening must also be accompanied by a fundamentally different learning paradigm. A learner-centric approach will require enhancements and improvements to pedagogical practices in schools to plug the learning losses accumulated over the last five months. Sig­nificant investment in en­­­­abling this shift will be required in the form reskilling teachers, ada­p­­tive learning frameworks, coaching and counselling preparedness, and a rigorous assessment regime.

There is no playbook that can be used to plan and implement a precise school reopening that will limit setbacks to the progress made by Pakistan in turning around the bleak outlook for a high and ex­­tended Covid-19 peak. Caution must be exercised in devising policies and protocols that will guide school reopening. Allowing all schools, more than 40 million students and over 2m teachers and staff, to reopen simultaneously breaches the bounds of prudence.

School reopening will need to be staggered. Selectivity across grades and locations will be instrumental. A meticulous evaluation of the impact on the spread of the virus will be imperative to allow reopening at scale. Open communication between government, teachers and communities will be critical to managing expectations of the risk of potential outbreaks and resulting in hard choices to reclose schools. The risk of outbreaks must be calibrated against the learning dividends that can be realised, and schools reopened if the safety-learning combination can be optimised.

The writer is a public policy adviser and Fellow at the think tank Tabadlab.

Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2020

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