AFTER a six-month gap in in-person schooling, colleges and schools across the country are set to open their gates to students on Sept 15 — albeit in phases. The green light was given by Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood after a meeting with the provincial education ministers; the phased reopening plan which would see all students in class by the end of the month was discussed. Indeed, as the minister said, these have been difficult times, with pandemic-induced lockdowns throwing the academic year into disarray for millions of students and their teachers. At the press conference where this decision was announced, Mr Mehmood sat alongside Dr Faisal Sultan, special assistant to the prime minister on health, who expressed confidence in the testing capacity and appeared satisfied with the current rate of positivity in the country. Both stressed on the need to follow Covid-19 SOPs, with the minister saying action would be taken against institutes that violated them. For students returning to class after a long summer, there will be many changes to adjust to. The ‘new normal’ school experience will see fewer students per day, cancellations of some activities, distancing in classrooms, face-coverings, periodic Covid-19 screenings and frequent handwashing.
No doubt, the reopening of educational institutes is a welcome step. Schools are an essential component of communities and play a key role in the academic and social development of a child. While some teachers and students took schooling online during the lockdown to maintain the flow of the syllabus, there were scores of students who were unable to participate in virtual lessons due to poor internet facilities or lack of computers. School reopening will bring relief to many who have missed out, but increase the responsibility of both schools and the government as the threat from Covid-19 persists. Monitoring mechanisms should be developed and teaching staff must be supported if they take sick leave. Here, transparency, a proactive strategy and mass testing are crucial. Schools should chalk out a plan with the government and health departments in case of a Covid-19 outbreak in their locality, and not shy away from closure if the risks are high. Daily testing at between 20,000 and 30,000 is far too low. It must be ramped up dramatically to gauge community spread and formulate the next steps. Preventive behaviour ought to be encouraged and adopted, as it will not only allow schools to lower transmission rates but also help them to remain open.
Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2020