Educational institutions are open in the countries most affected by the Corona virus, even in the Chinese province of Wuhan which was the place of origin and epicenter of COVID-19, then why Pakistani children are deprived of education?
Reopening schools carries the public health risk of viral resurgence. Parents and teachers are understandably wary.
Safely reopening the educational institutions will be an expensive and herculean task. However, it is impossible to compensate the educational loss of 50 million students due to the lockdown. Notably, 25 million Pakistani children are already deprived of their constitutional rights. With the addition of 50 million more children, a total of 75 million Pakistani children have been deprived of their constitutional right to get education. Sadly, more than 50% of them are girls!
Many factors need to be considered and worked out in partnership with health department before resuming the educational institutions. The nation’s most vulnerable students will remain hardest hit losing valuable learning time, and vital social-emotional support.
Many questions remain as experts weigh options for getting students back into the classroom. Parents who have watched their children struggle with online learning since educational institutes across the country were closed in March are painfully aware that virtual classes are no substitute for face-to-face instruction. Even so, many of these parents worry that educational institutes might hastily reopen without taking the necessary precautions to shield children and everyone in the community from infection.
If this crisis of confidence continues to fester, millions of families could decide to keep their children home when educational institutes begin opening around the nation this fall. This would further harm the prospects of students who have already lost ground because of the pandemic and who are at risk of falling irretrievably behind.
Statistics reveal that six in ten parents say they are likely to continue home learning instead of sending their kids back to school this fall
If closures extend beyond the fall, this shortfall could be even greater, with negative consequences for individual students and society as a whole. If decision makers believe that their remote-learning offerings are effective and equitable enough to avoid learning shortfalls, then longer school closures may be feasible. However, an uneven rollout of remote learning represents lost learning for every day out of school.
UNESCO, UNICEF, WFP and World Bank issued new guidelines on the safe reopening of schools amidst ongoing closures affecting nearly 1.3 billion students worldwide. “While many students are falling behind in their learning journey because of prolonged educational institutes closure, the decision of when and how to reopen, while far from straightforward, should be a priority. Once there is a green light on the health front, a whole set of measures will need to be in place to ensure that no student is left behind. These guidelines provide all-round guidance for governments and partners to facilitate the reopening of schools for students, teachers and families. We share one goal: to protect and advance the right to education for every learner,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.
The guidelines include:
* Safe operations
* Compensating learning
* Wellness and protection
* Policy reform
* Financing requirements
* Reaching the most marginalized
“Once schools begin to reopen, the priority becomes reintegrating students into school settings safely and in ways that allow learning to pick up again, especially for those who suffered the biggest learning losses. This is a critical moment as it is the launching pad for a new normal that should be more effective and equitable. To manage reopenings, schools will need to be logistically prepared with the teaching workforce ready. And they will need to have plans specifically for supporting learning recovery of the most disadvantaged students. The guidelines offer a framework for moving forward that the major UN agencies are aligned around,” said Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education.
Nevertheless, parental anxiety is strikingly evident in recent polls. Statistics reveal that six in ten parents say they are likely to continue home learning instead of sending their kids back to school this fall. One in five teachers say they are unlikely to return to their classrooms. And when parents and teachers are considered together, about four in 10 oppose returning to school at all until a corona virus vaccine is available in other words, possibly years from now.
One father and teacher among those surveyed spoke for many others: “The expectation of parents and society is we’re sending our children to be educated in a safe environment, and how we’re going to provide that safe environment is completely unknown.”
Moreover, teachers’ unions are rightly worried for the safety of their members. Apprehension is running high especially among employees over 50, an age group of people especially vulnerable to coronavirus infection.
Although the risk to students themselves appears relatively low, reopening schools will also expose teachers to risk-especially those who are older or immune-compromised-and might contribute to higher risk for the larger community. Children’s role in transmitting the novel coronavirus is still unclear, making it difficult to estimate the extent to which reopening schools might contribute to resurgence. Potentially relaxed confinement measures outside the education sector add to the uncertainty. Decision makers will therefore need to determine when to reopen schools in the context of reopening society at large.
Along with this, officials have deepened people’s anxiety over these problems by fixating more on resurrecting hotels and restaurants than on educational institutes. Over and over again, we’ve witnessed a laissez-faire approach to reopening that lets each locality go its own way. In private education sector, discussions on reopening educational institutes is being carried out behind closed doors or without consulting parents’ groups that clearly should have been involved from the beginning.
In other places, officials are whistling right past this volatile issue, mouthing vague platitudes about wearing masks and allowing a little more space among students’ desks.
Timing of schools: Classes can be continued by maintaining social distance in shifts of 7am to 10am in the morning and 11am to 2pm in afternoon with maximum number of 25 students in each class/lab.
“The risk from the virus will not be zero until there’s a vaccine or a treatment which is 100 percent effective.”
The public health mandate that requires limiting student and staff interactions at educational institutes will require putting fewer students on buses and in classrooms. Without an infusion of new teachers to staff additional class even fewer students than might otherwise be allowable would be on hand in any one school building at a time. Under this hybrid schooling model, some students will study at home and some at school on certain days, and the groups then switch places.
School officials can handle instructional logistics. Education and Health departments need to take responsibility for the complex network of supports that educational institutes would need to stay open in the midst of a pandemic. Public health officials should decide a few crucial issues promptly, so that procedures and protocols could be made public.
The final consideration to weigh is school systems’ ability to create and consistently follow effective health and safety measures to mitigate the risk of infection. School systems’ infrastructure, budget, supply chains, policies, and culture all contribute to their ability to operate safely after reopening. For instance, a school with unused classroom space and enough classroom aides could stagger schedules, space desks at least six feet apart, and facilitate more but smaller classes. Conversely, schools with strapped budgets, overworked teachers, and crowded classes will have less flexibility. Furthermore, equipping or retrofitting schools for optimal hygiene and sanitation won’t be effective if student behavior cannot or does not adhere to health and safety protocols.
How much testing will be needed to ensure protection of the thousands of students, staff and the vast number of families connected to them? Once a case has been diagnosed, how will health agencies track down and test people at risk of infection, particularly those in a poor and transient population? Will an educational institute need to shut down once someone in it tests positive for Covid-19? If so, for how long? How often will educational institutes be sanitized? Who will supply staff members and students with protective equipment? Who will pay for the inevitable lawsuits that arise when people sue, claiming they were infected at work?
There isn’t one right set of answers to these questions. Infection rates fluctuate across communities, as does capacity of healthcare systems; education systems vary in both structure and performance; and different communities have distinct cultural values that inform decision making. Significantly, leaders will be making decisions based on limited and rapidly changing epidemiological evidence and will therefore be forced to make difficult trade-offs to reopen schools. Once schools are deemed safe for in-person instruction, addressing re-enrollment, academic remediation, and possible viral resurgence will require new capabilities.
The writer is web editor of Daily Times