EDITORIAL: One didn't really need the benefit of hindsight to know that there was no way that students of different classes and grades would have been able to take their exams at this time simply because of the way the third wave of the coronavirus has been setting new records of fresh cases as well as deaths with every passing day. Yet despite all the pleading on behalf of students and their parents, Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood was adamant that the Cambridge exams, at least, would go ahead as scheduled; only to take yet another textbook U-turn on the matter once the National Command and Operations Centre (NCOC) put its foot down and deferred all exams till much later in the calendar year.

This decision should have come much sooner, quite frankly, since students were already burdened because of the need to shift to online learning, which has its limitations particularly for the most senior classes, and then the added uncertainty about their exams must have made things much worse for them. To be fair, education has emerged as one of the biggest casualties of the pandemic so the minister's rush to get this year's exams behind us was, to an extent, understandable. For even when the vaccines do their job, the virus subsides and economies come back to normal, missed years of education will continue to take a toll on entire counties, especially marginalised communities within them that could not provide internet access to their children. A lot of children unable to attend school now will never be able to return to their education, especially in the third world, for a whole host of reasons. Some will fall below the poverty line and spend the rest of their days begging on the streets, others will add to the forces of child labour, while others still will have nowhere to go because their schools went belly up because of the pandemic.

Pakistan did better than most countries prior to the third wave - in fact it barely noticed the second wave - but because of limitations of internet outreach it was still not able to keep the learning of a majority of its students uninterrupted. The very best schools were able to adjust and did alright. But most of the country's schools, which did not draw children from wealthy or even well-to-do families, have not been so lucky. So, Minister Mehmood found, and continues to find, himself in the unenviable position of having to decide about schools and exams in such an environment. Still, if one must err then one must err on the side of caution and just considering the overall trend and all the talk of locking the country down all over again should have made him put two and two together and not put the lives and health of so many students and their parents in peril by dragging them to examination centres for at least two days before pulling the plug on the exams.

Everybody, especially the government, must emphasise at all times that the only thing people can do in a country like Pakistan, where the vaccination drive will take its sweet time in reaching the entire population, is follow all safety procedures at all times. Short of that, nothing will keep people safe and make the virus go away. Sadly, more people at any random public place are still seen without masks than with them; to the point that the prime minister has had to call in the army to help maintain discipline and make sure all Standard Operating Procedures () are being followed. At such times forcing students to take some of the most important exams of their careers, which will impact how their education proceeds and which kind of jobs they get, is surely asking too much. One can only hope that everybody will be extremely careful about safety procedures for the time that these exams have been postponed so nobody has to go through this torturous process again of waiting and not knowing what might come.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021


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