One step forward, two steps back. We are told that this is the new normal. Within days of the re-opening of educational institutions across the country, the National Command and Operations Centre (NCOC) closed 13 educational institutions for flouting health guidelines and standard operating procedures (SOPs). Prior to this, it had announced the closure of 22 schools. It seems many institutions are ignoring the SOPs despite repeated reminders.
There is confusion all around. While the NCOC is a federal institution, it seems not to be representing the thinking of the Centre. Many provinces have decided to go with the flow. But the move by the NCOC prompted the Sindh government to also look at its own situation and decided to postpone the second phase of the re-opening of educational institutions. The decision makes sense.
And yet predictably, the move by the Sindh government has caused friction with the federal government. As the two bicker over specifics, the number of cases rise and parents of school-going children are at a loss on what to do. Nobody seems to have taken their concerns into consideration.
It may be recalled that educational institutions were opened on September 15 for the students of Matric and above grades, which included institutions of higher learning. In the second phase, secondary schools were scheduled for reopening on September 23, while primary schools would reopen on September 29. All this is now under a cloud.
Predictably, several Covid-19 cases emerged at different educational institutions after the first phase of the re-opening. As a result, the Sindh government postponed the re-opening of schools for classes VI to VIII amid concerns over violation of the SOPs. In response, Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood took to Twitter to insist that there would be no change in the timetable announced earlier after an inter-provincial meeting of education ministers. One wonders why they can’t talk amongst themselves instead of arguing in public.
In response, Sindh Education and Labour Minister Saeed Ghani told a press conference that he had reviewed the situation regarding implementation of the SOPs. Some had made good arrangements, while others did not, he claimed, adding that while SOPs were being flouted, it did not make sense to take the re-opening forward.
The confusion that now exists is that while Ghani says that the situation might worsen with the increase in the number of students coming to attend classes and the decision to resume secondary classes from September 21 has been postponed, Shafqat Mahmood tweeted that there is no change regarding the timetable announced earlier.
But the worry from Sindh is not without foundation. Sindh’s announcement came after 89 Covid-19 cases emerged among students and school staff during random tests conducted at private and public schools across the province. The provincial government says that the number of cases could rise to hundreds when more test results come back.
There are many questions one can ask here. To begin with, we must be mindful of the larger picture. The national number of cases has started to creep up. This was expected given the re-opening of schools. But not enough monitoring is being done to see whether the re-opening of educational institutions have had a major part to play in this. After all, the government has also allowed the re-opening of business and entertainment activity across the country.
One also has a right to ask whether the government has a fallback plan in case the number of infections rises beyond a certain point. When do we panic and when do we go into lockdown? While there are many who argue that re-opening is the only way forward, this comes at a cost.
Many countries across the world have opted for caution and not lifted restrictions as fast as Pakistan has done. The results have been mixed. There is not enough debate in Pakistan on how to move forward or what to do if things get worse.
Time and again we have seen that the difference of opinion between the leadership at the Centre and that in Sindh, where the only opposition-led government functions, has resulted in confusion and chaos. One blames the other for the problems and it seems both get away without doing anything of value for the people. In the case of Covid, this comes at a huge cost to many.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st, 2020.