Early this year, school gates around the world were closed as a means to curb the spread of COVID-19. Little was known then that the schools would remain shut for such a long period of time. Even now that schools and educators across the globe are voicing reopening because of the loss that the children face, there is a lot of confusion, and conflicting information as well as research on how COVID-19 affects children and the youth and whether it is safe or not to reopen schools.
Amid all the uncertainty, countries like Bangladesh and Philippines are not ready to reopen schools till the threat is over or till a vaccine is available. But many others like USA, UK, UAE etc. are contemplating a reopening from August and September. Pakistan is also included among these. Is the world ready to open schools? Moreover, is Pakistan prepared to go that course?
A lot has been lost undoubtedly when it comes to closing of schools and financial institutions as early as March 2020. Over 1.5 billion youth was staying at home as countries went into lockdowns. It is true that children and the youth cannot give upon education for an indefinite period. But reopening schools have many conditions attached to the decision. Baseline control and prevention measures by World Health Organisation include necessary resources, policies and infrastructure to protect the health and safety of all school personnel; safety and security of children during pickup and drop off; appropriate physical distancing everywhere including classrooms; appropriate use and availability of masks and hygiene; screening and care of sick students, teachers and staff etc.
Children may be less affected and while the illness they experience is usually mild, they also have greater contact when at school. This means that the spread of virus is likely to pick up when all schools and related activities go full throttle. In Pakistan, the cost benefit analysis tilt towards costs outweighing the benefits because in a country where the adults find it impossible to follow SOPs, and authorities helpless in enforcing strict compliance, allowing schools to reopen would only add to the injury. Yes, the number of cases and deaths have significantly come down in July 2020 in Pakistan, but are schools in Pakistan ready to provide and adhere to these basic measures? The answer to this question at least is not that hard.
Faisal Bari in his recent article highlights key issues that might be unique to Pakistan or a developing country. Learning for children in Pakistan is largely dependent on physical school environment as students from the public sector do not have access to internet, or the budget to own digital devices for remote learning. Moreover, the lack of autonomy with public sector schools to take decisions based on their local settings, and private schools’ ability to monitor and ensure implementation of SOPs are daunting tasks.
Preliminary researches and global models are showing that the key in opening of schools lies in increased tracing and testing to avert another peak. A study on UK school reopening by Dr Jasmina Panovska-Griffiths, from UCL shows that prevention of a second wave in UK will require a major scale-up of testing and contact tracing, yet another daunting task for Pakistan where testing capacity has remained low. The only factor in our favor has been the decline in the number of cases being reported. Let us hope that it remains like that post Eid – ul – Azha and Muharram activities.