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Schools closed again

The extraordinary pandemic circumstances in the last year have forced the government to take some difficult decisions. Most daunting of which involves education. Just over a month after Pakistan reopened schools following an extended winter break, educational institutes in as many as seven cities of Punjab are up for another closure. While government sources are calling it a routine spring break, the surging number of daily COVID cases cannot be brushed aside.

Pakistan is not alone in this rollercoaster of policy shifts when it comes to the closure of schools and college. Similar policy oscillations were seen around the world. Even after opening schools on a priority basis, the chaotic second wave forced the British administration to bolt the doors tight again. Whilst all 50 US states closed schools at some point during the last academic year, centres of learning in at least one state are still a no-go area. As cried by the UNICEF’s “Pandemic Classroom,” around 214 million children globally (one in seven) have missed more than three-quarters of their in-person learning. Ergo, there is no easy decision.

Both shutting doors and reopening schools have been tantamount to political quicksand for the government. Lockdown plans were mocked as the proverbial tale of an ostrich burying its head in the sand. In the face of an alarming 44 per cent of Pakistani children out of school, the state was reprimanded for being oblivious to the disastrous educational emergency. Media reports were lamenting how at least 930,000 children would not return to primary and secondary schools once the virus was done with.

On the other hand, reopening schools encountered criticism from health agencies over (well-documented) infection transmissibility among children. Only a day after schools were reopened last September, Pakistan had recorded striking 665 new cases. Given the high incidence of students bringing the virus home from the classroom wherein those at heightened risk of infection become acutely vulnerable, such concerns weigh heavier.

Then, how to tread the balance between the learning and safety of children? No one can argue the urgency of the learning to resume. But Pakistan’s feeble technological infrastructure was a big setback in the success of online learning. A very large number of schoolgoing children coming from low- to medium-income households meant not everyone had access to quality internet.

The implementation of SOPs is a different conundrum altogether. Our recent horrific experience with PSL brought to fore a nationwide inclination to flout pandemic regulations. How can our children be expected to abide by social distancing and weak masks throughout school-hours when adults could not find the strength to observe these rules? This enforcement is nothing less than a Heraclean task in our over-crowded schools, especially those with limited resources. How will they build the capacity needed to test students/teachers regularly?

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