Sindh Education Minister Saeed Ghani on Friday announced that the resumption of school classes for students of grade six until eight, scheduled for Monday, will be delayed by a week after schools were observed not fully following coronavirus health guidelines.
Addressing a press conference in Karachi, he said the government realised the academic losses suffered by students due to closure of schools, but stressed that their health could not be compromised to compensate for the loss of learning.
"Despite our efforts, we are seeing a lot of flaws and violations, therefore we are delaying the second phase of resuming grade 6-8 classes," he announced.
Ghani said the classes that were slated to resume on Monday (Sept 21) will be pushed back to Sept 28, if the situation concerning the virus improves.
"But if the situation remains the same, we might review the decision on Sept 28 again."
Like other provinces, schools in Sindh were set to be reopened this month in phases after six months of closure due to the pandemic. In the first phase, classes nine and above were allowed to return to schools on Sept 15. Classes 6-8 were scheduled to resume on Sept 21 while primary and pre-primary classes were to resume on Sept 28.
Ghani said the objective behind the phase-wise approach was to not send all children back to school at once so that there was a smaller number of students in schools at a time. "And so that we would have a practical experience regarding the extent of implementation of the SOPs formulated," he added.
But he said he observed violations of health guidelines and government rules regarding resumption of classes during his surprise visits to schools in various areas of Karachi.
The minister said while some private schools had made excellent arrangements to implement the standard operating procedures, violations were seen in some government schools and colleges. However, he added, although government schools had only allowed in students of grade nine or above, some private schools were sealed on Thursday for resuming classes for children as young as grade one or lower students. No SOPs were being applied on these young kids, he noted.
Ghani said he observed violations at schools even today during his visit to the city's Central district, "even at some renowned schools which have numerous branches".
"If the students were wearing masks, the chowkidar at the gate did not have one. Teachers were either wearing masks [pulled down to the chin] or they didn't have one at all, and there was no distancing between students," he told the presser.
The minister said these violations were being observed while only older students were attending schools at the moment, expressing the fear that the situation could be "terrible" when all students returned to schools by the end of the month.
Shortly after his news conference, Federal Minister for Education Shafqat Mehmood in a tweet said there was "no change regarding the time table announced earlier" after the inter-provincial meeting of education ministers.
"We will meet in the NCOC on 22nd to decide finally but if the current trend remains, [there is] no reason to postpone 6 to 8 [classes] opening on 23rd September," he wrote.
Covid-19 infections appear to be on the rise in Pakistan. The country reported more than 700 cases on Thursday for the first time in more than a month while Sindh's daily tally of infections rose above 300 earlier this week for the first time in three weeks.
'Not an encouraging situation'
According to Ghani, Sindh health department teams were visiting schools and taking samples for Covid-19 tests free of cost, including at private schools. A total of 14,544 tests have been conducted so far and of them, 3,336 reports have been received. Out of 3,336 results, 89 tests (2.4 per cent) have returned positive, he added.
Assuming 2.4pc as the positivity rate, there could be 360 positive cases among 15,000 tests, Ghani said, terming this a cause of concern because younger classes were yet to return to schools.
"If this situation prevails, it is not an encouraging situation. We took this difficult decision [to reopen schools] with the hope that the school and civil administrations along with parents would ensure implementation of the SOPs," he said.
The minister said while it was possible that the administrations showed negligence, "we can't expect parents to be negligent".
"Until parents don't create awareness among their children regarding SOPs, we won't be able to get children to follow them," he added, blaming parents for young kids not wearing masks.
Ghani said during the postponement of one week, it will be assessed how successful parents, administration and government are in ensuring SOPs are followed in schools.
"If we are not successful and the number of cases continues to rise, we will further review our decisions but the Sindh government will not compromise on the health of its students."
The Alliance of Private Schools, Sindh rejected the provincial government's decision to defer the resumption of secondary students' classes, and demanded Ghani's resignation for not following the schedule decided earlier for phase-wise reopening of schools.
In a statement, the alliance's office-bearers said private schools had been suffering financially for the past six months and "parents aren't ready to pay school fees." They demanded that private schools be given immediate interest-free loans in order to rescue them.
They further said all school classes should be resumed immediately and announced that they will protest against today's decision outside the Karachi Press Club on Tuesday.
The minister's press conference came after the National Command and Operations Centre (NCOC) said 13 educational institutions were closed down across the country during the last 24 hours for flouting health guidelines and SOPs.
According to a statement, 10 educational institutions were shut down in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa while three were closed in Sindh for "non-compliance of health guidelines and protocols and disease prevalence".
The NCOC had said on Thursday that the government had closed down 22 schools in 48 hours for similar reasons. According to the statement, 16 of those educational institutions were in KP, one in Islamabad and five in Azad Jammu and Kashmir.