- Re-opening is fraught with risks even with SOPs
The National Command and Operation Centre endorsed on Thursday the decision of the previous day’s meeting of education ministers, to reopen schools and colleges from September. The opening has been made conditional with the observance of SOPs. While it might be possible to get college or university students to observe social distancing, even a cursory glance of a primary school at break time will show why schoolchildren will be sublimely unaware of them. While not entirely immune, children and younger people do get ill less. But they are equally susceptible to carrying the virus, and the same sight of break time will show why school will be such an efficient means of infection. With so many multi-generational families, it is a certainty that children will bring covid-19 to teachers, parents and grandparents.
Reopening schools is not only a much needed sign of normality, but is especially needed in a Third-World country like Pakistan where education is the only way out of the poverty trap. Another consideration that came up during the ministerial meeting was of the public examinations, with the decision that they could be held if SOPs were observed, and the possibility of open-air examination halls explored. If SOPs are to be observed, it also raises the question of why wait until September, when there has been such a long period of extra closure, since the abrupt closure in April. Another related issue for private schools is their financial problems, primarily their salary bills. A lot of the smaller private schools are very hard-pressed, and these are only made worse by the closure, with parents holding back fees because they themselves are facing financial pressure, and because the children are not in school. Schools associations both in Punjab, where the PTI is in office, and Sindh, where it is not, have called for a special package to let schools pay salaries and bills. Asking them to re-open without taking action seems high-handed.
Another issue that the ministers were silent about was the difficulty of online learning. While it has vast potential, structural difficulties, like Internet access and teacher capacity, have been laid bare. These too have to be tackled, because in the post-coronavirus future, online learning will be a necessary adjunct of even orthodox, building-based, schooling.