Fall semester uncertainties

Published August 6, 2021
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

WE are in the middle of another spike in Covid positivity rates (fourth wave) and we are also coming close to the beginning of another academic year for universities. Schools have already started their academic year, with certain restrictions; universities are likely to be in session by end August or early September.

Education has been, equally or more than other sectors, very severely impacted by Covid over the last year and a half. Schools and universities have been closed for extended periods and education has had to move to online and other non-face-to-face platforms where possible. This has definitely impacted the quality of education. It has also made education access an issue for the millions who have not had access to these online and other platforms.

A lot of people thought and had hoped that with vaccines becoming available, the coming academic year will be less problematic and some of the more optimistic ones amongst us had even hoped we could return to the old ‘normal’. The way the academic year is shaping up, things are going to be more complicated.

Vaccines are definitely bringing the incidence of the disease down. They are also reducing the severity of the disease in people who get the virus even after being vaccinated. No vaccine has shown any widespread or serious side effects. So, it is a safe and inexpensive way of reducing the probability of falling sick. But it does not eliminate the disease. Though it is unclear at the moment, vaccinated individuals may continue to be carriers as well. This raises a number of issues.

It is unlikely that universities can go back to full, face-to-face teaching soon.

With a population of 200-plus million people, Pakistan still has only 33m or so people who have received at least one dose of the vaccine. The number is still very small even if we only consider the eligible (above 18) population. We will not be able to open sectors or reduce the incidence of the infection just through vaccination at present.

SOP compliance has been poor in general in the country. It has been better in periods when there are lockdowns and crackdowns but as soon as we move towards reopening, SOP compliance also goes down.

We are also getting new variants of the virus. So far existing vaccines have been reasonably effective against the new variants as well, though sometimes with less effectiveness. But the possibility of more vaccine-resistant new variants remains. This underscores the need to keep SOP compliance levels high, irrespective of vaccination numbers, in the medium to long run.

So, we are going to continue to struggle in the education sector. A lot of faculty, staff and students at the university level have been vaccinated. This does not mean that we can fully open universities in the fall and go back to full face-to-face teaching.

SOPs have to be maintained. This means we cannot fill lecture halls and classes the way we used to. If physical distancing needs to be maintained, we might be able to fill rooms to 50 per cent of their capacity. We will also have to restrict classes to well-ventilated rooms. How do we then offer face-to-face classes to all? The same will be true of hostel facilities (we cannot have too many people in the dorms) and other facilities on campus (dining, sports, library, laboratories, etc). So, the ability of universities to serve students under SOPs will be limited.

Rooms will need to be reserved in hostels for quarantine and isolation, in case students become symptomatic. Rapid testing facilities will need to be present. All of these will raise costs and/or reduce the numbers of those who can be on campus.

There will be a certain number of faculty, staff and students who, due to their co-morbidities or due to people with co-morbidities living in their families/households or having young children in their homes, might not be able to or want to have face-to-face interactions. Universities will have to make arrangements for them. It might mean that some percentage of courses will need to remain online or be in hybrid format. This also raises costs and/or time pressures.

If a student or faculty member falls ill — and some will despite vaccination and even with reasonable SOP compliance — they will be isolated for a few weeks. So what will happen to their classes in the meanwhile? Again, online options will have to remain.

There are likely to be subsequent waves as well. We do not know how many and for how long. It might be a few years before Covid subsides and we have ‘herd’ immunity or better medicines to manage the infection. When there is a wave, the government response is likely to be the same: shutting down activities and closing off areas to break the transmission chain. So education provision, a service that relies heavily on face-to-face interaction, is likely to continue to face periodic shutdowns. We have to be prepared for that too.

Everyone is tired of Covid-19 and wants to go back to ‘normal’ life. Faculty, students and staff are no exception. Everyone wants face-to-face education and normalcy. But it is unlikely that that particular ‘normal’ will return for some time. What we have is the possibility of management, post vaccination, of some face-to-face interaction with strict compliance with SOPs. Even then we will continue to have disruptions, closures and so on. Individuals will continue to fall sick; we will need to manage that too.

As we prepare for the fall semester, all of the above makes the situation that much more unpredictable. Still, life must go on. Classes will happen, learning will go on. But it will take a lot of management to ensure we can do it optimally, given the constraints. The universities will need to have flexible and quick decision-making abilities and they will have to prepare well. We only have a month to go.

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, August 6th, 2021

Opinion

Climate & youth

Climate & youth

Disillusionment and anxiety are on the rise among youth as they confront the diminishing prospects of a better tomorrow.
Our exclusivity syndrome
Updated 17 Oct 2021

Our exclusivity syndrome

Pakistan needs at least a minimum level of inclusivity that can keep alive democratic values.
Shafqat Kakakhel
Updated 16 Oct 2021

Shafqat Kakakhel

COP26 has to achieve consensus on several issues.

Editorial

Carnage in Kandahar
Updated 17 Oct 2021

Carnage in Kandahar

Pakistan’s anti-extremism policy is in many ways half-baked and inconsistent.
17 Oct 2021

Sanctity of contracts

PAKISTAN is facing yet another international dispute before the International Centre for Settlement of Investment...
17 Oct 2021

New sports policy

THIS week, the Pakistan Football Federation Normalisation Committee chief Haroon Malik was in Zurich to hold ...
Diminishing freedom
Updated 16 Oct 2021

Diminishing freedom

DESPITE the serious reservations of digital rights activists and tech companies, the federal government has...
16 Oct 2021

Dirty politics

IN her outburst against Prime Minister Imran Khan this week, PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz may not have taken names but...
16 Oct 2021

Decreasing emissions

THE announcement by SAPM on Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam that carbon emissions in the country came down by 9pc...