To open or not? – Zubeida Mustafa

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WHEN schools in many parts of the world have resumed education in varying degrees, why are our schools still shuttered? The irony is that this is the fate of institutions that cater to the needs of the poor who are already deprived. I feel the matter has not been given serious thought. Even in pre-Covid times public-sector education in Pakistan was rotting. Now it is about to hit rock-bottom.

Against this backdrop, the statement of the federal education minister sounds quite hollow. He tweeted that for the government the welfare of the students is always paramount. He made this claim when announcing that a no-objection certificate had been issued to the British Council to enable it to hold special O-level exams of the Cambridge board in July-August. These exams had been cancelled at the scheduled time due to a surge in new Covid cases.

It is strange that the matter of only a few thousand students appearing for these exams should be of such official concern when the government turns a blind eye to the fate of 50 million children. They are the five- to 16-year-olds whose education is the responsibility of the state under Article 25-A of the Constitution. Never has a word of apology been uttered by the high-ups in the education ministry or education departments for this lapse. No one has even tried to explain why 22m children in Pakistan have been out of school (the figure is from the pre-pandemic age). This hardly reflects any concern for the welfare of the children of the have-nots.

This inequity is more pronounced in the impact of the pandemic on education. The initial shock and fear inflicted by the coronavirus were followed by opposite reactions in the two circles dealing with schools. The immediate response of the government was to shut down all educational institutions. Gradually, the upscale schools put their heads together and made their own arrangements for online teaching to be in full swing, albeit digitally. They had the resources to do that. Although this was definitely not the best choice, it was the only one, if education had to continue in the circumstances. That is how the private schools managed to remain afloat with some semblance of normality.

Public-sector education is about to hit rock-bottom during the pandemic.

Public-sector and low-fee private schools had a different story to tell. They cater to nearly 75 per cent of total school enrolment in Pakistan. The federal and provincial governments just sat back and planned nothing. Devices such as tele-school and online storytelling were no substitute for on-site classes.

The government instead raked up new controversies that were irrelevant to the immediate health emergency. Here I refer to the Single National Curriculum that should, in any case, be laid to rest for the time being. The only major decision the government did take in 2020 with reference to education was to cancel examinations all over the country.

What next? The policymakers need to focus on reopening primary schools to restore the credibility of education in Pakistan. Since February/March 2020, our public-sector and low-fee private schools have functioned for a total of five out of 15 months in an on-again off-again fashion, and thousands of students have dropped out of school in this period.

Most countries recognise the dilemma they face: how to balance the health safety requirements of children and the latter’s schooling needs. Whatever solutions have been devised, public health has not been compromised. Neither has any country been accused of neglecting its children. If anything, most Western states take better care of their citizens who are minors. With the exception of the initial period of the shutdown, the primary schools in many countries (eg France, Britain and Canada) have functioned quite nor­­­mally with SOPs observed and courses divided into smaller segments and attendance being staggered to meet the exigencies of the situation.

No child’s life was at risk. The fact is that globally far fewer cases of Covid-19 have been reported in children under 15 as it is believed that a child’s immune system can respond differently.

According to Dr Naseem Salahuddin, a leading expert in infectious diseases, children can be carriers of the virus. “But now the vaccine is available. People are being vaccinated. School teachers should be prioritised and vaccination should be made mandatory for them as has been done for the medical profession. Thereafter primary schools should be opened with SOPs in place,” she adds.

An analysis of NCOC data shows a reassuring trend. Since the vaccination programme was launched in Pakistan, we have had a diminishing increase rate of new cases. In early January, new cases increased on an average of 13pc daily. By end May, they were 11 pc and continue to decrease.

www.zubeidamustafa.com

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2021