EDUCATION and learning have suffered substantial, and in some ways permanent, setbacks in Pakistan during the pandemic. Schools were intermittently closed due to rising cases and ensuing restrictions, and though private, high fee-paying schools managed to take teaching online so students were not totally left behind, public and low fee-paying schools missed out in a huge way. For these schools, digital learning was and is simply not an option. For millions of students, not only did learning and teaching not take place during the closure period, there was also the serious problem of lost learning that occurs when students disengage from school. When students return to schools after each closure, teachers confront lower levels of retention and have to reassess their expectations of how much a student can catch up given how badly schooling was affected.

Read: Inadequate learning, loss of earnings: The staggering cost of school closures in Asia

Compounding the problem, a World Bank estimate suggests that around 1m children will drop out of school as a result of income losses during the pandemic. Given that 22m children in Pakistan are already out of school, the additional dropout figure represents an increase of almost 4.2pc. A study conducted on the disruption of schooling during the 2005 earthquake in the northern areas showed that an entire cohort of students from three to 15 years of age at the time of the disaster had lower academic scores four years later, despite substantial remediation efforts. The pandemic-induced school closures – which have coincided with the three waves of Covid-19 – have brought similar, if not worse, disruptions.

When it comes to decisions on education, the role of the government leaves much to be desired. Aside from the hue and cry over university and college examinations, there has been no conversation about or support extended to the millions of children who have been pushed out of the education process during the pandemic. Reopening schools when cases are low is simply not enough, given how high the dropout rate is. What efforts are being made to re-engage students who have permanently left school? With households reporting a fall in income during the past year, what is the government doing to persuade poverty and hunger-stricken families that education is a priority?

The government has some serious work to do. As schools reopen, officials must acknowledge the terrible setbacks to education and devise a long-term plan. This strategy must address the digital divide as well as the huge blow to girls’ education, already regarded as being of secondary importance in families where incomes are strained. Interventions must be planned around these challenges, given that with new variants and low vaccine coverage, a fourth and fifth wave are very real possibilities. As the government mulls its next steps for the educational sector, mass vaccinations and testing must be rolled out to ensure that future disruptions do not push learning towards an irrecoverable collapse.

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2021

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