Education in time of Covid-19
Meraj Hamayun Khan
The year 2020 ushered in a period of fear, anxiety and deep sorrow. It brought with it a deadly enemy with peculiar ways of attack and a hunger for human blood never heard or experienced before. Its arrival was so sudden that even the best of leaders, managers and administrators were shocked into a stupor and inability to respond. This alien killer, which has put all the systems into a spin, is a virus which has been given the name Covid-19.
Where it came from and how it spread over the entire world targeting mainly the metropolitan cities of the developed world is a mystery still to be solved. Currently, governments especially health departments and practitioners are focusing on preventing deaths and saving lives by trying to find the cure for the dreadful disease caused by this virus.
In the meantime, every familiar system that we have used and are familiar with has crumbled and become almost redundant. Economies floundered, communication stopped, social life came to a standstill and educational institutions closed down for indefinite period. What remained is fear, anguish and uncertainty. Undeveloped countries like Pakistan are facing a challenge several times harder than the developed world.
The Government of Pakistan took a long time to acknowledge the presence of the virus so when reports of fatalities started pouring in, it had no mechanism to respond effectively to arrest the spread of the infection. It took two months to seriously address the issue and go into lockdown and closure of all public places including educational institutions where people crowded. The lockdown continued for four and a half months and disrupted the whole educational calendar and system.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, like the other provinces of Pakistan, access to schooling is a major issue. There are still 1.9 million children out of school. The pandemic put a stop to new projects and activities and the closure of the existing institutions forced even the regular students to stay at home. The government tried to salvage something from the ruins and introduced online classes and a radio school program but the majority could not benefit from these practices as the province has a large rural population with no access to WiFi and other internet facilities. The hilly terrain in the north further blocks access to any online system since many places do not have mobile networks.
These are difficult times for any government because it has to juggle several challenges specifically health risk to education managers and students and the loss of precious time of the students majority of whom come from very low income families. However, the KP government has been found to be the most insensitive to the serious nature of the infection as well as the future of education in the province.
There has been no serious discussion or consultation to collect the best ideas and design a policy and a program that would be in line with the current global emergency situation. Students, especially of professional colleges have been protesting and demanding that solution to be searched out so that their graduation is not further delayed. Earlier, the government had decided to promote students without completing the courses and final assessment.
There is a dire need to know exactly the intensity of the threat in the province. Administrative departments, particularly health and education have to work closely together in order to design short and long term strategies. The capacity of each department for strategising and implementing decisions taken on short notice should also be analysed and strengthened.
A new education policy specifically for emergency situations should be drafted and approved by the cabinet without wasting any time. This policy should be comprehensive and concise and should cover all the aspects of the education system, the curriculum, text books, teacher training, assessment and community involvement. Currently, the government is depending on ad hoc decisions mainly about the closure and reopening which has created a lot of frustration and anxiety in the country.
The Education Policy for Emergencies will specify the duration of the academic year, its break down into semesters, subject matter based on understanding the nature of emergency, its causes, intensity and impact and measures for protection. Lessons in each discipline will evolve around the central theme. For example, the current central theme is Pandemic 2020. The history lesson will recall pandemics of the past, where and when and how they were handled. The science classes will learn about the composition of the virus, the family it belongs to, its causes and mode of transmission. Social studies will contain the effects on social, economic and political life.
The Pandemic 2020 has taught us several lessons one being the fact that life and its systems can change within hours. It is testing our resilience as well as our creativity to respond as fast as it spreads in order to preserve our very existence. To do this, it is very important to change our thinking, our habits and our living style. Similarly, the government needs to change its mode of governance. New, bold and drastic measures must be taken for survival. Resources spent on non-functional departments and individuals should be saved by closing, downsizing or merging different departments e.g. Higher Education, Elementary and Secondary Education, Agriculture and Livestock and Dairy Development. Similarly, within education department there are several overlapping offices which could be merged. Resources thus saved will be available for new interventions.
Similarly, the trend of online classes will be difficult to reverse especially if the pandemic continues for a couple of years more. It is therefore important to enable all the areas to have networks and efficient internet facilities. Along with provision of equipment, gadgets, non-stop electrical power and internet, professional persons trained in the use of latest technology have also to be employed if objectives are to be achieved. Furthermore, radio and other sources of mass communication will have to be used to reach homes in the far flung areas.
The writer is the Chief Executive of De Laas Gul and a former Member of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly. She also has been the Provincial Minister for Elementary and Secondary Education. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.