COVID-19 has forced schools and other educational institutions to close across Pakistan. The education sector in Pakistan has responded to this challenge by adopting synchronous and asynchronous models to help students continue to learn.
Schools are wondering as to what extent this state of uncertainty would continue. Will these different educational approaches continue to work for a longer period? When will schools reopen and what would the new normal look like? What measures will schools need to take to ensure continuity of learning without risking the health and lives of the learners and other members of the school community? These are some of the questions that policymakers, school leaders and parents are asking.
AKU's Institute for Educational Development, in collaboration with the University's Resource Development department, recently engaged health and education experts to address these questions and concerns.
While sharing their perspectives, all speakers cautioned that COVID-19 is an unprecedented crisis which affects all aspects of our life. Currently there is only a partial understanding of the predicament that the pandemic has caused for education. As this is a new virus, there are new developments in the understanding of the pandemic and its effects every day. Hence, school leaders and policymakers will need to be agile in their approach to quickly learn and change course when a response strategy does not work.
The majority of experts felt that online and distance learning may not work everywhere and schools will need to return to the face-to-face mode of learning at some point in time. One of the reasons is the lack of access to digital technologies including the internet for everyone and also the adverse effects of these learning modes on the cognitive and social development of children. However, the new normal in which schools will reopen may look different from what schools have traditionally been used to. So how do schools prepare for reopening during and beyond COVID-19?
From a health perspective, Dr Junaid Razzak, director of AKU's Centre of Excellence in Trauma and Emergencies and one of the panelists, talked about the four broad principles that schools will need to keep in mind when they decide to return to a face-to-face mode of learning.
Maintaining social distancing as advised by health experts. Schools will need to create provisions to allow social distancing among students and other members of the school community. This means accommodating fewer students in a classroom and other learning spaces, in play and recreational areas, and in transport facilities.
Limiting the time that students and the rest of the members spend in the school. Schools may be required to shorten the length of time that students spend in the school. Schools will need to find creative ways to effectively utilise the time that children spend in the school to maximise their learning.
Limiting the chance of infection within the school community is also of critical concern. Students and teachers will need to wear masks; the school administration will need to make changes to practices to ensure regular cleaning and disinfection of school premises and especially surfaces that are touched most frequently; as well as making provisions for frequent hand washing and sanitising.
Reducing risk by keeping high-risk students, teachers and staff away from the rest by allowing them to either stay at home or to making safe provisions for them in the school.
Click here to watch Dr Junaid Razzak's talk.
Dr Ali Faisal Saleem from the Aga Khan University Hospital and Dr Saliha Hassan and Dr Talaiha Chughtai from Five Health Enterprises highlighted that schools will need to work on the minute details of their daily operations, administrative support and health and hygiene provisions to create a safe learning environment for the school community. Experts from Five Health Enterprises shared a practical guide which includes basic SOPs and guidelines to help schools provide a safe environment for their learners and others when they decide to reopen.
The guidelines have been developed in line with advice from WHO, health experts, educationists and parents., They have been developed keeping in mind what schools, especially the less-resourced ones, can afford to do.
Speakers also highlighted that schools need to have their own health policies in place and to regularly update them as updated guidelines are issued from health authorities in the country. To avert the risk of transmission, schools may consider a no-tolerance policy for those who would violate SOPs and health policies.
Provisions will also need to be made for regular screening of students and others in the school. Making sure the availability of a school nurse or a health professional is critical especially during this COVID phase so that students and the larger school community can be helped and provided with basic health care such as screening.
Teachers will need to be educated on how to educate children in a safe environment given the threat of COVID-19, removing their fear but at the same time making them vigilant about the risks. They will need to be taught how to protect themselves and the students and how to get help when needed in an unforeseen situation.
Click here to watch an overview of the guidlines prepared by the experts at Five Health Enterprises.
Dr Dilshad Ashraf, an associate professor at AKU's Institute for Educational Development shared that COVID-19 has pushed education beyond the brick and mortar schools. It has challenged the age and stage approach to schooling. It has brought a huge theoretical shift by bringing the social learning approach to the fore. Children are now learning at home with their siblings and other family members of different age groups.
For schools, it would be important to consider this shift and rethink their curricula to adjust to this shift. Teachers now have an opportunity to enrich the curriculum with the real-life experiences of learners at home and by incorporating social aspects of learning.
Schools now need to pay attention to the holistic wellbeing of children and not just their academics. A fragmented approach now needs to be replaced with a well-rounded approach that covers an individual's development and growth.
In future, schools will need to address the digital divide. They will need to invest to equip students with resources so that they remain inclusive in their approach to education.
Developing the capacity of teachers on engaging with learners and empowering them to use learner-centred approaches as they venture into innovative and different modes of teaching is critical. At the same time looking after the overall wellbeing of the teachers as they deal with the new challenges of teaching and learning would be important.
As we move forward, schools will also need to critically look at the solutions and responses that they have come up with. They need to ask whether these are knee-jerk solutions and which of these can be sustained in the long run if the uncertainty prevails for longer or the new normal looks much different than what we have been used to.