Reopening schools by Faisal Bari

SCHOOLS might be allowed to reopen by mid-September. It is safe to assume that we will not have a vaccine for Covid-19 by then, nor effective medicines that could keep the symptoms and health impacts of the virus at a minimum and ensure quick recovery. So, should schools be allowed to open under these conditions, and what SOPs should be put in place to ensure a certain level of safety for students, teachers and administrators?

We do not know if or when a vaccine will be available. By mid-September, schools would have been closed for six months. Even if a vaccine is not available, how long can we keep schools closed for? Pakistan does not have good technological infrastructure; we have a very large number of children of schoolgoing age, and most of them come from low- to medium-income households in which access to internet-enabled devices cannot be ensured. If schools remain closed, learning also stops for the majority of our children.

We want learning to resume. But for most, it cannot resume without schools opening physically. Though there have been public- and private-sector initiatives to deliver learning through television, radio and the internet, they (for reasons mentioned) cannot adequately provide learning opportunities for most Pakistani children. So, for us, resumption of learning does mean reopening schools. This might be different for other countries, where internet access and other home environment issues are different.

We could argue that the health and safety of children and teachers are so important that we should not take any risk at all until we have a vaccine. Though there seems to be promising news on that front, we cannot predict when an effective vaccine will be widely and globally available, not to mention its affordability. Should learning remain suspended for an indefinite period? More and more countries seem to be arguing that we have to move towards opening, with all the precautions that can be taken, but with the knowledge that this will expose our children and teachers to a higher risk of infection.

Children need to learn in a physical environment. How can we keep them safe?

So, the emerging position seems to be: if infection rates are under control, reopen schools with the requisite SOPs. This is especially important for countries like Pakistan, where learning for most children must take place in the physical environment of schools and/or through face-to-face contact with teachers and peers.

Risk levels will also vary a lot across situations. The public sector and low-fee private schools have limited ability to provide extra equipment (masks, sanitisers, handwashing stations). A lot of schools are overcrowded; besides, implementing SOPs has been hard for Pakistanis in general. Maintaining physical distance has proven difficult even for adults; it will be almost impossible for younger children.

Even six months into the pandemic, our testing capacity is hardly 20,000-odd tests per day. If we want regimes where students/teachers are tested regularly, where we have the ability to test and quarantine entire schools/universities in case of suspected or actual outbreaks, we do not have that ability. And it is unlikely that we will have that ability. So, reopening will bring with it substantial risks for children and teachers in most schools in Pakistan. And if students and teachers are exposed, the risk for adults at home will rise substantially.

Schools could be more innovative and have policies that allow for classes to be held on alternate days (to reduce the number of students in a school on any given day); increase distances between desks where possible; allow open-air classes to be held where grounds are available and the weather permits it; do away with activities that constitute large gatherings like morning assembly; stagger lunch breaks for classes to reduce interactions between groups of students; and suspend most sports and/or social activities.

For this to happen, schools need a lot of autonomy to decide what works best for them given their circumstances. Many public schools have large grounds; how can they effectively use them? Local assistant education officers, head teachers and teachers are in the best position to make these decisions, not higher officials. So, the government should ensure that all relevant information and options are available to local authorities, but then the latter should have the freedom and flexibility to adapt them according to their circumstances.

Low-fee private schools are mostly individually owned, and autonomy is not an issue there. Here, the issue will be our ability to monitor to ensure that SOPs are being followed. For public schools, the problem is going to be the opposite. Given government bureaucracy, there is little or no effective freedom for local authorities to come up with differentiated policy.

Can the bureaucracy adapt quickly to allow and encourage local responses? Such responses cannot be only in the area of health and safety, they have to be about curriculum and pedagogy as well. How much students have lost out in the past six months will have an impact on what we should be teaching them this year. And as schools make decisions, they will make mistakes too. But this is inevitable. Will the bureaucracy be able to live with that, and not indulge in the temptation to be punitive towards those that make honest mistakes?

The opening of schools seems to be coming. This will definitely expose our children and teachers to a higher risk of contracting Covid-19. But it also seems, at some point, we will have to start the learning process again and this cannot be done remotely in Pakistan. To manage the additional risk, we will have to bolster our ability to implement SOPs and to effectively localise policies. Both of these seem to be difficult. Whatever decisions we take, given the low confidence in the private and public sector’s ability to make and implement policies effectively, 2020-21 is going to be a difficult academic year.

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, July 24th, 2020

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