Pakistan school pray mask
Students wearing face masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus, pray prior to going their classrooms at a school, in Karachi, Pakistan, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. Image Credit: AP

Islamabad: In Pakistan, millions of students returned to school on Tuesday with mandatory temperature checks and the use of masks after six-month long closure. Schools were shut due to COVID-19 and many classes moved online but the pandemic also revealed the great digital divide for those children lacking internet access.

For many students, the experience was somewhat similar to going back to school after summer vacation but not familiar. “I am excited to go back to school after so long and meet my friends. But the thought of wearing a mask all the time and keeping a safe distance from others is a bit scary,” said 13-year-old Mishkah Fatima. Other than books, lunch and water bottle, her school bag also contains small bottles of hand sanitizer, masks. “You’ve got to stay safe,” she says.

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Safe and phased reopening of schools

Pakistan’s Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood announced safe and phased reopening of schools and universities from September 15 following the swift decline in coronavirus cases. All higher educational institutions including universities, colleges and schools till grade 9 opened on Tuesday while grades six to eighth grade will reopen on September 23 and primary schools will resume classes from September 30. Schools are encouraged to follow an alternate-day schedule to decrease the number of students in classrooms. Strict action would be taken against the institutions that violate the safety rules, officials said.

Welcoming students with safety measures

Welcoming millions of children back to school, Prime Minister Imran Khan said the government’s priority and the collective responsibility of the nation to ensure that every child could go to school safely. The National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) issued the standard operating procedures (SOPs) for safe reopening.

“Let us welcome our children and students on the first day of the opening of educational institutions,” said Dr Faisal Sultan, the special assistant to PM on health. “Please don’t forget basic protective steps. Masks, reduced density in classes, hand hygiene. Parents, school administrators, teachers, students – all together,” he reminded.

Parents hopeful, children excited

Azra Shafiq, an Islamabad-based banker, said her children are excited to go back to school and she is not much worried about catching the virus. “The school administration invited parents before the reopening to ensure mandatory guidelines that students must wear masks, wash hands or use sanitizers, and keep a safe distance. Parents were specifically asked to keep sick children at home,” Azra shared with Gulf News. Her kids attended online classes during the six-month hiatus but she feels the kids would learn better in the classroom than remotely.

Highlights of the health guidelines for schools
• Students, teachers and staff must wear mask at all times.
• Daily temperature checks at the gate.
• No assemblies, sports events or extracurricular activities for now.
• Six feet social distance required which would cut most class sizes in half.
• Alternate day schedule to be followed under which 50 per cent of students would attend school one day while the remaining the next day.
• Only 30 percent of students will be allowed to reside in hostels.
• Cleanliness and disinfection drive on the premises to be ensured by schools.
• Teacher must educate students on COVID-19 prevention with posters, daily lessons.