Open and shut

October 25, 2020

As the number of Corona cases rises, students find themselves grappling with fear and uncertainty: Will school admins ensure proper SOP adherence, or will school have to be shut again?

An official checks body temperature of a student as a measure taken against Covid-19 on the first day of school.

Nida Akhtar, 11, a student of Grade-5 studying in a private school in Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) was happy to go back to her school almost after seven months of its closure amid Covid-19 outbreak. However, her happiness was short-lived. Just a week after her school opened, a team of the ICT administration, found two of the school’s staff members to be Covid-positive during a random sampling exercise and sealed the school for the next few days.

“Our daughter remained sad until her school opened,” says Muhammad Asghar, her father, adding, “Unfortunately, some schools are still not fully following the Covid-19 standing operating procedures (SOPs) for schools despite fears of a second wave in the coming weeks.”

Junior grade students appear to be happy to go to school after a long and somewhat stagnant period at home.

“We are not shaking hands, we are maintaining social distancing and wearing masks, which is difficult, but we are happy to go to school. Teachers remain at a safe distance, tables are arranged with care, and classes are divided in groups. But, it is still more fun to go to school than taking online classes,” says Rafia Ahmed, another primary level student.

The ICT, since opening of the educational institutions in September after a break since March this year, has conducted more than 15,000 tests in dozens of schools and colleges as part of its random testing and monitoring of implementation of SOPs. Till last week, more than 30 educational institutions have been temporarily sealed after more than two staff members tested Covid-19 positive in random sampling. The number of public and private educational institutions is almost equal.

“Initially, we seal a school for five days if more than two people in the school test positive. During that time, we conduct broader testing of staff and students of that institution,” says Dr Asif Raheem, a senior officer of the district administration, who oversees monitoring and sampling in schools and other places. The sealing period has now been increased to two weeks, according to the authorities.

The Higher Education Institution, Private Educational Institutions Regulatory Authority, and District Education Officer chalk out weekly plans to monitor schools and universities and give random tests. Till now, more than 15,000 tests have been done at schools. More than 100 people have tested positive in this random sampling exercise. There are more than 2,000 private and public educational institutions in the ICT. Around 800 tests are being conducted on average per day in the ICT educational institutions since their opening in September.

The biggest challenge, in this process, says Dr Raheem, is that some schools try to hide positive case(s) because they want to keep open at any expense.

The biggest challenge, in this process, the government official says, is that some schools try to hide positive case(s) because they want to keep open at any expense. He says that sometimes, they complaints from parents and take action on that.

According to the guidelines sent to all schools students up to Grade 8 are at school for three hours a day. Senior classes commence afterwards to avoid crowding.

“Staff at almost all the schools has been trained properly, before the schools opened,” says Zafar Iqbal Yusufzai, a senior PIERA official. He says the ICT has been divided in five sectors and tests are given on daily basis with the help of National Institute of Health, and district health authorities and a daily report is submitted to the NCOC (National Command Operation Center), the highest decision-making body dealing with the coronavirus situation at the national level.

However, he says, some private schools with limited resources are facing some difficulties in implementing the SOPs; however, PEIRA is monitoring them on a regular basis.

“We understand that we are coping with many challenges in an extraordinary environment. The students also need to work to cover for the corona hiatus, and for schools to remain open and cautious,” he says.

Hamza Shafqaat, the deputy commissioner of Islamabad, rules out the possibility any short-term or long-term closure of educational institution, except for those found to have Covid-positive cases. He says, despite the fact that the number of positive cases has been rising in the ICT, there is very little chance of all schools closing this time.

“We are working to ensure that the SOPs are strictly followed and an honest inspection of schools is done by the relevant authorities to check whether SOPs are being followed properly or not”, he says.

The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected] 

Open and shut