Educational institutions across the country will reopen in phases starting September 15, Federal Minister for Education Shafqat Mehmood announced on Monday, nearly six months after the coronavirus pandemic sent students home.
- Universities, colleges and classes 9-12 to resume on Sept 15
- Classes 6-8 to return on Sept 23 after a review
- Primary schools to reopen on Sept 30 in last phase
- Strength of students in classes to be halved
Addressing a press conference after a meeting of the inter-provincial education ministers’ conference (IPEMC), Mehmood said in the first phase, all higher education institutions including universities, professional colleges, vocational institutes, as well as classes nine till 12 will resume on Sept 15.
A week later, on Sept 23, classes six, seven and eight will be allowed to return to schools following a review, while primary schools will be reopened on Sept 30 in the last phase, the minister announced.
"It means we will open all these institutions in 15 days if things remain okay," he said, adding that the decision also applied to madressahs.
Mehmood said today was an "important" day because the government had been waiting for the Covid-19 situation to improve before reopening all educational institutions.
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," the minister said, thanking parents and students for waiting and spending the past months with patience. "They were difficult times but everybody was patient."
However, Mehmood cautioned that the government will be forced to "take action" whenever it is felt that the standard operating procedures (SOPs) are not being followed at an educational institution.
He sought the cooperation of parents, teachers and administrations. "Everyone has to play their part and only then we can achieve success," he added.
The minister said some attached matters, including a change in the schedule for exams and course work, will be decided as things move forward.
Covid situation 'satisfactory': PM's aide
Speaking alongside him, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Faisal Sultan said the government had decided Sept 15 as the tentative date for the reopening of educational institutions if an analysis of the current coronavirus situation allowed.
He said at present, the country's situation regarding tests and the positivity of tests is "satisfactory".
"We can say with confidence that we can open educational institutions in a phase-wise manner," he added.
Dr Sultan said there had been a lot of debate in the world and in the country about the sequence of opening schools but after looking at all factors including the strength of students in schools and the condition of schools in Pakistan, it was collectively decided that higher education institutes will be opened first, following by classes 6-9 and then primary schools.
Detailing the precautionary measures that will need to be taken in the coming days, the SAPM said the density of students in a room or lab will need to be reduced to stop the spread of the virus. Using an example to explain, he said if normally 40 students sit in a class, schools will have to divide them either into two shifts or two days so only 20 children are gathered in one place at a time.
"The objective is that the number of students [present] on one day can be reduced so that the spread can be reduced," he stressed.
He said there also needs to be a distance between students, which he said can only be ensured if the strength of students has been cut.
He urged parents to ensure their children wear a face mask to school, emphasising that it did not have to be a surgical mask but could even be made out of cloth.
"Make the children understand; let them know its importance and cooperate with school and college administrations because they have been instructed to implement this," he said of the mask requirement.
Dr Sultan appealed to students not to go to schools or colleges if they are sick and have a cough and fever to avoid infection to others. He said educational institutions have also been directed to check symptoms.
He also asked students to ensure hand hygiene.
"Despite doing all this, we will not lower our guard. We have a strategy and we will do sentinel screening at a select few schools and colleges every two weeks so that we have an idea of the spread of the virus," the SAPM said.
"We will also keep an eye on the numbers [of cases and deaths] from the provinces so that if, God forbid, there are ups and downs, we can revise our decision."
Dr Sultan said reopening schools was the "biggest step yet" among all decisions taken by the government to ease Covid-19 restrictions, reminding the public to cooperate with the authorities.
Earlier today, the education ministers of Punjab and Sindh too had said schools in their provinces would reopen in phases from mid-September.
Both ministers said students in grade nine or higher would be the first to return to school, on Sept 15.
Their comments came as the federal and provincial governments sat together to decide on reopening of 300,000 educational institutions, closed due to the pandemic.
During the IPEMC meeting, ministers discussed the implementation of SOPs in educational institutions as well as making the students and parents aware about precautionary measures, according to the education ministry.
The meeting also deliberated on the phase-wise opening of schools.
Meanwhile, Punjab Minister for School Education Dr Murad Raas said on Twitter that schools in Punjab would open in phases with students in classes nine and 10 returning on Sept 15, students in classes six to eight returning on Sept 22 while those in classes nursery to five will return to school on Sept 30.
Raas said no double shifts would be allowed while all schools would follow the alternative day schedule according to which 50 per cent of total students would come to school one day while the remaining 50pc would attend the next day.
Sindh Education Minister Saeed Ghani also said that schools in the province would open phase-wise.
"Classes nine and above would be opened on Sept 15 in the first phase and one week after that on Sept 22, classes six to eight would be opened and one week after that, that is Sept 30, the classes from pre-primary to five would be opened," he said in a statement.
Masks would be made mandatory in all schools, he said, adding that all schools would have to implement the SOPs. Strict action would be taken against schools that do not implement SOPs, Ghani said.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan education departments have said they will follow the decision taken by the federal government in this regard.
Last week, the KP government decided to conduct random testing of students and teachers for coronavirus after the reopening of educational institutions.
Officials told Dawn that the education and health departments would jointly carry out around 3,000 random Covid-19 tests on campuses daily.