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Heatstroke or high scores

Across the country, students sit for examinations while enduring extreme heat or attend school in severe cold

By Safdar Rizvi/Rizwan Asif |
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PUBLISHED June 30, 2024

The scorching summer has become a period of great mental and physical stress for schoolchildren across Pakistan. With a grueling academic season coming to a close, students brace for exam time in the killer heat before the start of summer vacation. April onwards students sit for either their final school exams or matriculation and intermediate board exams. The timing of sessions and exams in the academic calendar does not take into account climatic conditions, causing significant difficulties for millions of students in Sindh as well as those in the rest of the provinces. Approximately two million students at the matric and intermediate levels are directly impacted each year.

Earlier this month, in some districts of Sindh, exams were postponed due to the life-threatening heat wave. Under the Karachi Intermediate Board, 290,000 students are participating in the annual exams this year, while 350,000 students are sitting for their matric exams. The total number of students appearing for matric and intermediate exams in Karachi alone is approximately 640,000, while the total number across the province is close to two million.

The academic calendar for Pakistan is not based around seasonal changes. In fact, the dates for exams coincide with the time of the year when temperatures are soaring the highest. However, the Sindh government's relevant departments for school and college education and the universities and boards department take no action to facilitate the students and synchronise the academic calendar with seasonal conditions. This year, holidays were extended (as in previous years), while the examinations for matric and intermediate levels were postponed due to extreme heat waves.

With several reported incidents in the news about students fainting or feeling sick during exams, the question on everyone’s mind is why the Sindh government and its relevant departments ignore the impending extreme weather conditions every year? The meteorological department can predict weather forecasts for several months in advance. Why can’t exams for hundreds and thousands of students be scheduled to avoid heat wave conditions and protect the children and facilitate them in taking their exams in a comfortable environment? This summer once again, the exams commenced as per usual in a period of intense heat. Many students in various cities in Sindh fell ill or fainted due to the severe heat, humidity, and power outages at the examination centres.

On March 6, the Federal Ministry of Education issued a letter to the Sindh Department of Universities and Boards urging the board to conduct the exams earlier than scheduled as all other provinces had already decided at the Inter-Provincial Education Ministers Conference (IPEMC) held on December 12, 2023.

"This was an Inter Board Coordination Commission [IBCC] decision, which included the chairmen of Sindh's educational boards, just like the other provinces,” said Dr Ghulam Ali Mallah, secretary of IBCC. “However, the issue is that the dates for exams in Sindh are decided by the steering committee, which claims that the curriculum is not yet completed so it is not possible to conduct exams in better weather. Hence, they end up being scheduled during extremely hot weather," he said.

He added, "We should plan to hold exams in March and conclude them by the end of April. Otherwise, the same problems will occur as we are seeing now."

Maintaining the current exam schedule causes two major problems, according to Mallah. “Firstly, students have to take their exams in extreme heat, causing them significant distress. Secondly, many universities start their admissions process during this time, and many students are left out,” he said.

The other three provinces and the Azad Jammu Kashmir Board have tried to conduct matric and intermediate annual exams in better weather conditions, he told The Express Tribune.

For decades, the academic session in Sindh starts on April 1 but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the session was moved to August in 2020. This continued until 2023. Subsequently, with the academic session starting in August, annual exams for all classes were delayed.

On the other hand, primary and elementary students are at home for summer vacations after the end of school. They do not have any summer homework because the new academic session hasn't started, and they have not started learning their new course. Initially, the steering committee of the Sindh School Education Department decided to revert the session to its original timing, setting the date for April 15. However, there was a delay in printing schoolbooks; the Sindh Textbook Board was unable to print the textbooks for the new session starting in April because the printing tenders had been canceled multiple times. Consequently, if the session were to start in April, the textbooks would not be available. So, the session was once again changed, and it was announced that it would begin now on August 1.

This raises concerns that the annual exams in 2025 will also be conducted during severe heat, similar to this year. Dr Muhammad Memon, a prominent educationist and former chairman of the Secondary and Higher Secondary Education Board, Hyderabad, said, "During my tenure as chairman of the Hyderabad Board, the director of the meteorology department was invited to the steering committee meeting. The officer clearly stated that the peak of winter in Sindh is recorded in January rather than in December and shared the relevant data. However, no decision was made based on this information. Hence, these issues emerge again and again for the timing of matric and intermediate exams."

"Exams are a serious business,” said Memon. “The IBCC has made several attempts to unify the academic calendar across the country. Holding matric and intermediate exams in March and April is ideal because the weather is better at that time. Additionally, the boards need time to compile the results, and in the meantime, universities start their admissions, causing stress for students. We need to fix this issue for the coming years.”

The Express Tribune tried to contact Abbas Baloch, secretary of the Department of Universities and Boards about the issue but received no response.

Meanwhile, a chairman of a board, who wished to remain anonymous, stated, “Despite our objections [to the steering committee], our voices are suppressed, resulting in students taking exams in extreme heat and severe load shedding, and sometimes exams have to be canceled.”

Winter presents its own hardships in terms of exam schedules. Winter vacation days are stipulated from December 22 to 31. However, according to the meteorological department statistics the cold snap in Sindh, especially in Karachi, hits in January. Schools reopen just as temperatures are the lowest at the start of the year and children are seen shivering on their way to school in the mornings. According to the data, the temperature in Karachi stays around 10 degrees Celsius in December but drops to six degrees Celsius in January. Zahid Abbasi, Secretary of School Education Sindh, was unavailable for responses when this reporter contacted him.

Pakistan Meteorological Department's Chief Meteorologist, Mehr Sahibzada Khan, speaking to The Express Tribune said that climate change is currently the biggest challenge facing the world today and Pakistan is expected to experience more intense heatwaves in the coming years, with no signs of a decrease.

According to statistics, there is not much difference in daytime temperatures, but the nighttime temperatures, which used to be very low, have now risen significantly. Our schools, offices, and homes are all being built with cement, steel and other materials that do not take into account the inflow and outflow of fresh air. Over the past few years, we have transformed the construction industry in such a way that the materials used in it absorb heat throughout the day and the heat radiates from the walls and roofs at night. The height of the roofs has been reduced, while dark coloured paint or tiles (which absorb heat) are being used on building exteriors instead of white paint, which reflects heat. Then afforestation in Pakistan is also nominal, and people do not have a passion for planting trees.

“In our childhood, schools would close on June 30 and there were two months of vacation. Now children have also become sensitive to the heat. These days the temperature in Punjab is 47 or 48 degrees Celsius and is expected to remain the same till July 15. There is a possibility of some storms in between, but it will not make much difference. After July 15, the monsoon will start and there will be severe humidity,” said Khan.

Punjab Teachers Union General Secretary Rana Liaqat said that during the tenure of Pervez Musharraf, once the academic year was commenced from January 1 and another time the academic year began from August 1, but due to the objections by the provinces, the old calendar was restored. The weather and environment are different in each province, so the provinces maintain that the existing calendar is suitable for all.

At present, there are over 30 million children in school in Punjab. This number does not include college and university students. Around 11.8 million children are studying under the School Education Department, 2.7 million under the Punjab Education Foundation, 600,000 under Punjab Education Initiative Management Authority, while over 10 million children are studying in private educational institutions.

Many argue that changing the educational calendar will disrupt the educational system, the children will not be able to study with focus, but if the world itself is changing due to climate change, then this should be seriously considered in Pakistan. “We must adapt the design and materials of our buildings according to climate change effects, plant more trees, and change our lifestyles,” Khan said.