ONCE again schools have been closed. It is not clear when they will reopen as the third Covid-19 wave continues to rage. On April 14, the government website tracking Covid numbers reported that 5,395 people had tested positive and 118 had died. These are some of the highest numbers we have seen during the pandemic. Though some lockdowns are in place, and have been so for the last three to four weeks, the numbers still remain high and it is difficult to predict when they will come down enough for the government to be able to reopen schools.
The last academic year was a very difficult one for education. Schools were closed in March 2020 and remained shut till September or so. They were again closed in December and then once more about a month ago. Even when open, schools have had to work under strict SOPs. They were asked to have 50 per cent attendance and alternate day classes and to work under other restrictions.
All of the above has had a significant impact on learning. We know that students have not been able to learn much this year. We also know many have actually lost what they had learnt up to last year as well (learning losses have been estimated in some cases). When schools reopened, attendance was less than what it was before closures, even after taking into account the impact of SOPs. Some estimates of possible dropouts go up to a million students discontinuing primary and secondary education in Pakistan due to economic and other disruptions that have been caused by the pandemic. This is in addition to the 20 million-plus five-to-16-year-olds that are already out of school. We have a serious education crisis on our hands even if everything were to stay where we are right now. But the near future is not giving us any reason to be optimistic.
Relief does not seem likely anytime soon. The third wave is raging. But even if this wave were to subside, due to partial lockdowns and other measures, and we reopen schools, what will stop the arrival of a fourth or fifth wave? The only way forward, it seems, is through mass vaccination. But it is not clear when, and if, we are going to have enough vaccines to be able to carry out mass vaccination. With a population of some 220m people — and even if we leave the younger people out — we still need around 100m vaccines. So far we have vaccinated about 1m people in Pakistan. How long will it take for us to reach 100m? And without such coverage, could we avoid subsequent waves of Covid-19?
Schooling will remain a challenge unless most of the country is vaccinated by September.
Is it possible to declare teachers and other staff working in schools to be front-line workers and vaccinate them on a priority basis? Some other countries have done this. There are definitely other groups, the elderly and healthcare workers, who should have higher priority due to the risks they carry. But after these groups, as in other countries, teachers and staff members of educational institutions could be given some priority. However, this is predicated on the availability of vaccines — we need much larger numbers than what we have at the moment.
The government opened up vaccine registration for 50-year-olds and over on March 31. It has been more than two weeks but vaccination for people from 50 to 59 years has not started. The government has also announced they will start general registration post-Eid, but again, it is not clear when the actual vaccination will start.
Will sufficient numbers of Pakistanis be administered the vaccine even when it is available? It is not clear what the acceptance rates are going to be. In England, one estimate said that 95pc of eligible people are getting vaccinated. For Pakistan I saw one estimate that said that around 40pc would not want to be vaccinated. The government will have to start large-scale campaigns to convince the people. Workplaces, schools and organisations might have to make vaccinations mandatory. But again, we will only know about this problem when we have the vaccines and open up the vaccination drive to larger segments and then see how they respond. For the moment, it is unclear when this will be.
Come September, if most of the country is still not vaccinated, we might be getting more coronavirus waves and education will continue to be disrupted. If this scenario plays out, we will have more learning losses, and dropout rates will increase further. It is difficult to predict learning losses and dropouts at the moment, but given our experience over the last year, the numbers are not going to be small.
We need to gear up online learning efforts to make sure students stay with their studies as much as possible while the disruptions continue. Once the disruptive period is over, we will need large-scale campaigns to get students back to school. We will need large conditional cash-transfer programmes to ensure students do not drop out due to economic disruptions for them and their families. Ehsaas is already working on this and will need serious up-scaling. We will have to run large-scale remedial programmes to ensure that learning losses are minimised. When the disruptions are over and children are back at school, it might be a good idea to cover material from the previous years for a couple of months before we move forward. For those especially vulnerable to learning losses, the remedial classes might be a must or else the students may not come back or drop out altogether.
Almost all paths forward seem to be those where education disruptions will continue. The cost of not doing anything about them in terms of learning losses and dropouts are going to be very large. We need to plan for the next year or more keeping future scenarios in mind. We have a lot of work to do and on an urgent basis.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2021