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November 28, 2020

School closures: the sequel

Opinion

November 28, 2020

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.

Mid-March this year, the government took the decision to close educational institutions to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Understandably, the scramble to go online and switch to distance-learning alternatives for schools and universities was hurried and the solutions often ad-hoc and makeshift. At present, Pakistan is experiencing its second wave of the pandemic. Rising positivity rates have put us back in a situation similar to late-May/ early-June of this year, prompting a second round of school closures. With more than eight months since the first school closures, the question before us now is: are we doing any better this time around?

One difference this time is some mindfulness and acknowledgement of provincial autonomy in deciding how to go about continuity. In a press conference, KP Education Minister Shahram Tarakai announced that the provincial government had decided to bring students of each grade level to school once a week to turn in homework, pick up new homework and for teachers to answer student questions etc. He also announced that the department was weighing conducting classes outdoors where schools have enough space. Sindh and Punjab will likely follow suit. It seems like some lessons have been learnt about how to handle the present situation adaptively, although the proof of the pudding is in the implementation.

A question worth asking is: how was it that up until a few days ago provincial governments still thought schools could remain open? Were those determinations informed by data or politics? We have not seen Covid spread data specifically relevant to schools or made aware of any indicators used to make this decision. If such data is at all available, it must be put in the public domain.

It is evident that, until recently, neither provinces nor the federal government had any strategy in place for a possible second round of school closures in the winter. Provincial departments, convinced of the unaffordability of another lockdown, were set on cancelling winter break altogether. This is evident in the pushback from provincial ministers who did not want to implement blanket closures. Governments’ experience from the first shutdown has shown them that learning will not continue.

Even under the current model of bringing in one class at a time (an obvious improvement), provincial governments’ reluctance stems from the fact that students will incur significant learning losses. To put things into perspective, the most recent study related to learning losses related to school closures looked at the effect of the 2005 Pakistan Earthquake four years after the disaster. The results were shocking – a mere 14-week school closure led to 1.5-2 years of learning losses; 90 percent learning losses compounded over time after students returned to schools because of poor teaching. This kind of learning loss translates into reduced earning potential by 15 percent over children’s lifetimes.

Once schools reopened in September, departments of education prioritized covering coursework for the new academic year with little planning for remedial teaching. Teachers said they spent the first few weeks settling students back into the school routine and motivating them to catch up. Both students and teachers were kept in limbo due to rumors about an early winter break and resurgence of the pandemic. Needless to say, many students and teachers expressed that they were rooting for schools to close again. Teachers had gotten used to receiving their salaries while sitting at home. Students were happy to be promoted to the next grade without having to work for it.

So, when Minister of Federal Education and Professional Training Shafqat Mahmood announced that schools would close effective November 26, many students were over the moon, as evidenced by the many memes that began circulating. It was also announced that education would somehow continue using online resources, educational radio and TV broadcasts, under initiatives called Radio School and Taleem Ghar. The same or similar resources were also deployed during the first round of school closures. That makes it worth asking: how effective were they then?

In July-August 2020, the Malala Fund conducted a survey in which they spoke with children and their parents. They were able to quantify the damaging effects of school closures. Eighty-two percent of girls and 79 percent of boys expressed their intention to return to school after the long closures. Girls from the most marginalized communities, poorer households and those with parents in the informal sectors were the least likely to return.

Sixty-seven percent respondents said they have a TV and around 33 percent own a radio but only 20 percent respondents spent any time on education TV and a mere three percent on educational radio. Forty percent of girls were afraid to ask parents to access a mobile device for education purposes. Only one percent of respondents said they used ed-tech tools of any kind during this time. Perhaps most alarming of all, only two percent of boys and six percent of girls reported that they spent some time studying while schools were closed.

Under such conditions, how much hope can we hold out for online education to become a workable solution? The ‘Radio School’ has been allocated only one hour a day for grades I-III (combined!), and another hour for grades IV-V. How can a single hour of audio broadcast possibly be an engaging enough substitute for the learning that happens over the course of a regular school day? Furthermore, episodes are broadcast at fixed times and, so far at least, have not been put online in the form of a YouTube playlist or podcast archive, for on-demand access after they have been aired. Video content, developed at great cost, is delivered over TV and is also limited by airtime. However, Taleem Ghar deserves credit for putting their content on YouTube, for on-demand access. Whether it is the internet, radio or TV, we should consider three factors to evaluate these alternative channels for delivering lessons.

First, technical prerequisites: online lesson delivery assumes the availability of internet connectivity, electricity and an appropriate device. As the survey above has shown, few children have access to even a smartphone, not to talk of a computer. Access to TVs and radios is more widespread among the target audience, but still far from ubiquitous.

Second, reach: broadband internet connectivity is largely confined to major cities. TV and radio broadcasts cover vast swathes of the country, but the limits on airtime for education content on broadcasts limits their reach.

Third, effectiveness: while the video content distributed via the internet and TV is well-made, the effectiveness of a single hour of radio content for multiple subjects of primary grade-levels is questionable.

The government has taken the approach of throwing the kitchen sink at the problem – that is understandable. Delivering education over radio, TV and the internet has its place in Pakistan, but in a supportive role, not as a complete substitute for schools. Workbooks, which require little more than a pencil, should be the primary tool to ensure continued delivery of education, with all other learning resources in a supplementary role for those who have access to them.

This assessment is borne out by survey results in which the majority of respondents said that printed materials would be more helpful. Done right, workbooks can be used to provide engaging do-at-home exercises, solutions, assessments and a documented record of progress for teachers to review when schools reopen.

However, only five percent of survey respondents had received any such materials from schools. This is consistent with my conversations with heads of schools and parents who said that they did not receive any support from the government to continue education during closures. Some teachers showed me a single copy of the workbook their school had received for each main subject for a few grade levels, with the expectation that the schools will get them printed for all students from what teachers claimed was a non-existent fund. As a result, students in many schools did not receive these workbooks.

The second wave had been forecast a long time ago. Nevertheless, this second round of school closures looks just as haphazard as the first one was. The distribution of workbooks, which should have been the keystone in governments’ approach to ensure continuity of education in case of a second closure, continues to be neglected. The emphasis remains on developing optional and supplementary resources that not everyone will be able to benefit from.