Plans for reopening of schools have opened up a debate
As *Khadija wakes up her three children – all under the age of 12 – to join their online classes, she looks forward to a break from her hectic schedule with the virtual sessions due to end in a week. However, she expects schools to reopen soon for in-person classes – a development that concerns her.
Until now, reopening of schools after breaks had been celebrated by parents as a means for their children to continue to learn and progress. But the ongoing pandemic has brought new concerns for the coming academic year.
“I don’t think I will send my children to school right away,” says Khadija as she mulls over the decision. “I will watch the situation for at least 15 days after the reopening.”
“Reopening of schools means that children would potentially be exposed to the virus,” says *Sahar, whose son is an O level student. “People here are not taking this pandemic seriously, and children are too young to be trusted with meticulous compliance with SOPs.”
If the Ministry of Education deems the situation safe for children to resume in-person studies, re-opening of schools is scheduled for September 15 – after a break of nearly 6 months. In March this year, schools across Pakistan were closed in view of the Covid-19 epidemic. Earlier dates of reopening were considered but did not materialise.
Both Sahar and Khadija are concerned despite the fact that their children study in prestigious schools in Lahore and Karachi, respectively. But do their low expectations of compliance with SOPs imply that policies have not been effectively implemented in the past?
“I think the government will be unable to enforce any SOPs because they do not have effective administrative control as is evident from violations of safety instructions in public places,” says Sahar.
However, implementation of safety procedures within schools is largely an administrative matter and some private schools are promising rigorous enforcement.
“We will strictly follow all SOPs that the Education Department will share with us,” says Attia Randhawa, who heads a branch of a well known private school system in Lahore.
When schools re-open, authorities will require them to implement and practice strict safety procedures.
In a recent press conference, Federal Minister for Education Shafqat Mahmood announced that the government was looking at several options including scheduling classes on alternative days and holding classes in open air. The SOPs under consideration include installing sanitisers, disinfecting schools, equipping schools with infrared thermometers, employing school nurses, ensuring one-metre distance [among students] and a phased return of students.
In order to return to regular schooling, most schools are determined to comply with this challenging task.
“Since children are the most vulnerable segment of the society, we cannot afford any negligence,” says Randhawa.
However, some say that it might not be wise to resume on-campus schooling.
“While it is easy to draft a comprehensive policy document listing the SOPs, it is extremely difficult to implement them with children, especially with limited resources,” says Javeria Sethi, who runs Edopia, an English-medium school in Islamabad. “We should wait till the community transmission [of coronavirus] is significantly lower. Hopefully, new ideas will emerge that will be better suited to cover these gaps.”
The gaps that have emerged are widening every day. There are gaps in communication between schools and parents, for despite modern facilities, many households are either unwilling or unable to respond. There are gaps in the transmission of concepts and their absorption by students, for there is no perfect mechanism to effectively assess the process. And then, there is the digital divide – a huge gap between the affluent and others.
During the lockdown, some schools almost immediately shifted their classes online. However, this move was restricted to largely private English-medium schools catering to the middle- and upper-class students. Lessons were conducted live online. Resources were developed using modern technology tools and applications.
“Online classes have been a great success in terms of uninterrupted education,” says Randhawa. “This has not only kept students and teachers positively engaged in the educational process but has also saved children from the harms of social media that they were prone to, if their attention was not channelised constructively.”
Some parents agree. “Online classes were a blessing during these trying times where kids would need to follow a schedule,” admits Khadija. “At least, this way children remained in touch with their books and syllabus,” adds Sahar.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, there is a stark question of access. There are no online classes, written assignments or instructions for students from poor households. The state-run television network broadcasts lessons for Classes 1 to 12, aiming to address the masses. But how many parents ensure that their children attend these classes is not known. How many have access to televised lessons, particularly during lengthy hours of load shedding and how many are able to reinforce these lessons, are also questions to be taken into consideration.
“I see my employer’s children continuing studies using their computers. But my children have been sent back to the village till schools reopen,” says 30-year-old Mohsin, who is a driver for a family in Lahore. While education has come to a halt for his children, the reopening of schools too worries him greatly.
“The school my children attend does not even provide safe drinking water. What precautions can I expect them to take when they resume classes?”
While the privileged worry about safety measures, the needy gaze into an uncertain future, where any means of education – safe or unsafe – may be missing.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore. She writes on issues related to women, religion, history and society. She can be reached at [email protected]