Pakistan school students mask
Students wear protective masks maintaining safe distance as they attend a class, after government allowed reopening of schools from grade six to eight amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Peshawar, Pakistan (File) Image Credit: Reuters

After a full year of delays, dithering, experiments and closures, Pakistan’s schools have finally fully reopened to conduct face-to-face classes that had been put on hold on account of the ravages of Covid-19.

An announcement last week from the ministry of education laid down the conditions under which the schools would get back to normal teaching but nothing in the formulation suggested that this was a temporary, testing-the-waters kind of a step. Pakistan, from all accounts available, is moving towards an irreversible start of its education system.

This has been prompted partly by the petering out of the second wave of Corona that started end of last year but before it could become threatening fizzled out within a quarter. Like the first wave, this time around too there isn’t any scientifically solid explanation available for the quick downturn.

Recent op-eds by Syed Talat Hussain

All we know is that the numbers of infections and deaths have become ordinary by all global standards. The hype about mass infections, interestingly, that painted a scary picture a few weeks ago, was caused by politics surrounding Covid-19 rather than data.

As opposition parties mounted a political challenge marked by well-attended rallies across the country, officials spoke of the dangers of the pandemic spreading because of these gatherings. Since these rallies are now infrequent and political friction is reduced to polemics spoken in press conferences, the dread of Covid is no longer an item of debate.

In fact, just last week Pakistan’s cricket Super League opened amid much fanfare and gradually the public has been allowed to watch these games in limited numbers.

Moreover, much of the rest of Pakistan was already open: parks, play grounds, travel stations, airports, public transport and business hubs. It made little sense to keep the schools tied to the so-called hybrid system in which regular classes’ half strength were in attendance while the other half was online. The two groups alternated through out the week.

Despite being in operation for a year, this system proved to be a poor substitute for regular classes.

Limitations of online education

Access to the internet, requisite gadgets and online bunking were the common problems that hobbled the system causing huge learning losses. Teachers too did not find the system easy to operate and were found to be working at their minimum output levels.

With no real checks in place to monitor the quality of education being imparted and the students’ performance trajectory, the system limped along for a year with everyone pretending that it was actually working fine.

The reopened schools, while a great news for everyone worried about the educational future of a country that at any rate does not earn kudos for its general performance on this development index, are not without challenges, whose multifarious nature makes the coming months truly challenging.

For one, the gaping holes in students learning and the goals set for them in the educational charts have to be filled. Different students benefited differently from the online/hybrid system and to make everyone measure up to the same standard in examinations will be a hard task.

Getting students used to regular classes will be another challenge. Online classes have promoted a culture of laziness and focus disorder that will take time to disappear. Keeping students and teachers safe and also within the bounds of the officially-mandated SOPs will be another challenge.

A critically important decision

Most schools had to reduce their face-to-face classes to half strength because they just did not have the capacity to meet minimum Covid-19 protections like safe distancing, open and spacious classrooms and restrictions of needless intermingling on campus.

Most important, schools are reopening not on the back of a robust vaccination drive like for instance in the UK. In Pakistan one estimate suggests that by the end of June 2021 mere four per cent of the population will be vaccinated — and this is based on the assumption that vaccination supplies will continue to arrive regularly from China and Covax. So the virus is still around as educational institutions rev up their engines to go full blast.

The government’s best hope is that like the last year, rising temperatures and hot and humid environment will further taper the infection rates and bring these to a point where vaccination will not be required as an urgent antidote to curb virus spread.

This explains why it is not just schools, but cinema halls, marriage halls, indoor marriage functions, and full office workforce are also allowed as part of the same package of getting back to normal life.

If this best-case scenario plays out, Pakistan could well be on its way to functioning fully without the fear of the pandemic either hindering its social, educational and economic life or lingering like a sword of Damocles and causing uncertainty.

Schools’ reopening is akin to an early arrival of spring — much needed after long, painful months of mourning, wasting and waiting.

Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. Twitter: @TalatHussain1