As the deadly Covid-19 marches from country to country, – it ravages the flailing economy, exacerbates social inequity and engenders political upheavals. While it is first and foremost a public health crisis, its adverse effects have spilled into other dimensions of life. As health-workers advance towards the frontline, the vulnerable are steered into safety – their homes.
To put a leash on the spread of pandemic, lockdown imposed by governments around the world have barred children from going to school. Covid-19 has allowed the figure of out-of-school children to soar up to 1.58 billion– including those from 300,000 closed schools of Pakistan.
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E-learning on online platforms has become the norm. Tencent Online School enrolled 730,000 students in mid-February when Chinese government urged students to resume studies. “Seguimos Educando” is a program developed by Argentinian Ministry of Education that broadcasts educational content fourteen hours a day on television and seven hours on radio. Bulgaria has responded by setting up a National Electronic Library of Teachers which publishes training materials.
Evidently, Covid-19 has propelled us into an era of virtual tutoring. The world is optimistic that integration of informational technology into educational planning can bring about a ‘hybrid’ model of education. Dr. Amjad, Professor at The University of Jordan states that “I will stick to Lark (e-learning platform) even after coronavirus, I believe traditional offline learning and e-learning can go hand by hand.” But, what about half of the disadvantaged world that stays disconnected from technology?
Digital Divide of the Third World
While 87% of those in developed world enjoy internet facilities, even it cannot sustain connection for each and every individual. Due to load on internet services, US-based M-Labs reported sluggish broadband speeds. This misfortune pales in comparison to the developing countries, where only 47% people are privileged enough to stay online, with the figure being reduced to 19% in least developed countries.
Pakistan is among the countries bearing the burden. Before the outbreak, the country’s was already second on the list of those with the most out-of-school children. Umbreen Arif, education advisor to government of Pakistan, lamented that a staggering number of 50 million school/university-going pupils risk lagging behind.
With the broadband staying unaffordable beyond the urban centres and smartphones possession being limited to half of the population, the government runs ‘Teleschool’, a channel on PTV, that reaches out to 54 million subscribers. While it bridges the gap somewhat, the problem persists as numerous children cram in one household to access television, risking it to become a reservoir of infection.
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With social distancing sacrificed, technology is surely no silver bullet. For a country like Pakistan that stays offline, Khadija Shahper Bakhtiar, founder of Teach for Pakistan, states that ‘purely’ digital solutions are not the way to go. Educators must strengthen their resolve to find strategies that are in line with ground realities.
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Rida Rizvi, a Teach for Pakistan fellow working in outskirts of Islamabad, delivers education to her students in such a way that if children cannot come to school, school comes to them. Taking assistance of a nearby mosque to make announcements on loudspeakers, she delivers study-packs to children from the designated spot. As much a strong technological infrastructure is important, so is investment in quality teachers.
To retreat or to reopen, that is the question
Even with current stats taking a nosedive in Pakistan, coronavirus is here to stay as the ‘new normal’ until a tried and tested vaccine becomes widely available. After six long months, government has taken its decision regarding educational institutes.
“All Public & Private Schools of Punjab to open September 15th, 2020. This is a tentative date depending on COVID 19 situation in Punjab. SOPs for opening Schools are in place which will be conveyed to everyone.” @DrMuradPTI
All Public & Private Schools of Punjab to open September 15th, 2020. This is a tentative date depending on COVID 19 situation in Punjab. SOPs for opening Schools are in place which will be conveyed to everyone. All other news is “FAKE NEWS”
— Murad Raas (@DrMuradPTI) August 5, 2020
Keeping in view the widened achievement gaps, Faisal Bari, Professor at LUMs, underpins physical learning environment, stating that “for us, resumption of learning does mean reopening schools.”
To keep the virus contained amidst a return to schools, Pakistan can learn from the experience of countries that are a step ahead. Pakistan must ask itself, is it time? Despite being lauded for battling Covid-19, Israel bore the brunt of opening schools abruptly – just in two weeks, over 200 students and staff tested positive.
The world will learn to curtail the virus in educational environments through trial and error. Nevertheless, precaution is the key to protection
To avoid coronavirus spiralling out control, Pakistan can follow footsteps of Japan in taking a conservative approach. Regular temperature checks, alternate in-school attendance and stringent social-distancing can keep a lid on number of cases. Simultaneously, Pakistan can adopt the staged approach of Uruguay. Its strategy was based on gradualism – schools were reopened in phases; first for rural population, followed by vulnerable groups without internet access and eventually, all students were allowed back in classrooms.
What could be the path for Pakistan?
Amidst the havoc wreaked by Covid-19, for better or for worse – the technological divide between Pakistan and its developed counterparts was unveiled. We have been presented with an opportunity to rectify our education system; indeed, coronavirus is not the only pressing issue, but so is unequal access to education.
While Education Minister Mahmood rightly states that “…using technology for education is the way forward in Pakistan” but, this is a temporary fix. Human capital must first be invested in, allowing efficacious implementation of SOPs and effective localisation of policies once schools open.
There are no easy solutions to a novel problem that has enveloped the globe – the world will learn to curtail the virus in educational environments through trial and error. Nevertheless, precaution is the key to protection.
GVS News Desk with additional input by other sources