YESTERDAY, after a six-month hiatus, many schools, colleges and universities across the country opened their doors to cautiously welcome a new term. This was in compliance with the government’s decision to reopen educational institutions in phases across the country, beginning with higher education institutions, vocational training centres, and classes 9 to 12. Next week, classes 6 to 8 will resume; while primary schools will reopen a week after that. It is true that Pakistan has had relatively fewer cases of the novel coronavirus compared to other countries, and some of the initial fears surrounding the virus have dissipated. But the threat remains intact, and there can be a resurgence of Covid-19 cases if care is not taken. As the classes resumed, Sindh reported over 340 new cases of the virus, and three deaths. Meanwhile, Punjab reported 57 new Covid-19 cases and three fatalities in the span of 24 hours. Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Faisal Sultan tweeted a reminder to parents, teachers, school administrators and students to practise three steps in order to curtail the threat: “[m]asks, reduced density in classes, [and] hand hygiene”. Earlier, at a press conference, Dr Sultan had recommended that the number of students in a classroom be reduced, and that lessons be taught in shifts, so that social distancing could be maintained. It is absolutely vital that all SOPs are followed to the tee, including avoiding crowds, regularly disinfecting surfaces, not sharing belongings, taking handwashing breaks, and ensuring thermal gun screenings at entrance points. If possible, some classes could be conducted outdoors.
While it may be a challenge to enforce the SOPs, the provincial governments must ensure compliance at both state and private levels, and teachers and administrators must remain vigilant. But while children have suffered and missed out on their education — lack of internet access and poor connectivity being major constraints — virus symptoms are mainly seen in older age groups, and it is the teachers and staff that are perhaps at greater risk. The All Pakistan Private Schools Federation has already voiced its concerns, citing the financial burden of ensuring all SOPs are followed. And one college and hostel in Islamabad was sealed after 16 Covid-19 cases were reported on the first day back; in Toba Tek Singh, seven government school teachers tested positive for the virus. However, if a resurgence in cases is recorded, then the government will need to reconsider or modify its position.
Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2020