Education During COVID-19

The United Nations estimates that 90-95% of students worldwide have had their education disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. These are figures not seen since the last World Wars. What has made this more difficult for students, parents and teachers alike is the uncertainty that still clouds the process.

Even in terms of education, all disruptions are not created equal. While everyone’s education is equally important, yet we still see that for some students the timing has been more difficult. This is particularly true for those who were graduating high school, college or university and are now unsure if they will be able to do so on time. For the rest while there is still significant disruption, there is time and flexibility available for them to make up for lost time, more so than to those who were at the end of their respective educational levels. 
The bigger and more interesting question perhaps isn’t about education during COVID-19, which we will still discuss during the course of this article, but it is how will education change post COVID-19 and whether we will ever go back to the way things were before the pandemic began. It seems that as there will be “new normals” for everything, education won’t be any different. 
The First to Close
Educational institutions were the first to be closed in Pakistan and in many places around the world. From a logical perspective this makes sense, you have a large number of people who gather together from different households and then go back to those households every day. This can be a dangerous recipe, specially in the midst of a pandemic, and can actually exacerbate the spread of a pathogen. That is exactly why they were closed from the get go. People also didn’t want to put the lives of children in danger and there was an emphasis on protecting them. 
There were arguments made that as children are less affected by the disease, it made sense for schools to be reopened. This was a strong argument from the start of the whole debate, but in hindsight as we have seen children and particularly young children get affected in novel ways from the virus – closing down educational institutions was the right call to make. 
The Problem with Online Education 
Crises and emergencies have a way of accelerating adoption of new methods and technologies. Online learning has been around for quite a while now, yet, it never really went mainstream. It seems no one really figured out the magic formula to making it happen. Higher education in particular shifted to online education, and schools and colleges also followed suit, but it seems the magic formula still hasn’t been figured out.
The reason for going the online route is understandable. It is a safe way to keep education going. It allows people to graduate from universities etc. It also allows educational institutions to keep up revenue streams by saying that they are offering a service in any case. It also keeps teachers and other staff working. It also on some level keeps the students engaged. 
As the lockdown extended, many institutions reverted to online teaching with varying degrees of success. The main problem is that online learning programs aren’t made in a few weeks, they take years of meticulous planning and even then, they can’t substitute for the self-motivation needed to go through with them. Many students, specifically university science students, have complained that they aren’t learning much through online classes because of the lack of labs and the inability to work practically. Teachers have not really taken them as seriously as they should have either. Online classes for younger students can even get more complicated. 
Then there are a host of local issues to contend with. There is no mass availability of the internet in the entire country. How do you expect students to take online classes without the internet? In many households students don’t have enough quiet places to sit down and take a class. In some households, there aren’t spare computers or smartphones. The teleschool program of PTV is a good initiative but you can’t cram 60 hours of learning for 12 different grades – not to mention universities – in an hour of programming per class per day. 
The Business of Education
We tend to see education not as a business but more of a service. However, fundamentally, whether funded publicly or through fees, it inherently is a business. The private sector in Pakistan teaches more students than the public sector – this is especially true for schools over universities. As a result, the institutions have to pay rent, salaries and other expenses from the fees they collect. The pandemic has led to a low collection of fees. As a business most educational institutions aren’t faring well and it remains to be seen how will they operate. 
It is easy to look at the big schools and think they make a lot of money anyway, however, it is the single branch small schools that are both massive in number and are in the most trouble. With laws and rules like refunds of fees and reduction of fees which big schools might be able to accommodate, it won’t be true for the single branch schools which may end up closing down as victims of a `bad policy and the pandemic alike. 
The Perfect Solution
At the beginning of this article we did talk about how this situation has been more difficult for students in their terminal years at schools, colleges and universities, because they are faced with a choice between delaying a year or graduating in a non-traditional way. For most students I believe a workable solution has been worked out. This has been easier for university students as universities conduct their own exams and have a fair amount of flexibility in setting and fulfilling requirements which would allow their students to graduate. 
The same sadly isn’t true for college and school children and we have seen two similar yet different approaches being taken. For O and A Level students a predicted grade from the students’ teachers along with a statistical standardization exercise is being undertaken to ensure students can get a grade in time. For Matric and FSc students they are being given final results based on their previous year’s work. For many others promotions are happening without exams. 
Now, while these solutions are good, they don’t always cater to all types of students. Specially, those who wanted to improve their results or for private candidates. Some special measures have been announced for some of them as well. Yet, the truth is there is no perfect solution. We are in a very imperfect and difficult time. We should all commend the bold initiatives taken at home and abroad to ensure continuity for our students. At least for most these measures should be acceptable. 
Leading Research — Critical Lapse So Far!
We must also not forget the role of universities in Pakistan and abroad in developing cures, vaccines and researching all they can about the virus to try and understand it better. We have criminally neglected our healthcare and educational sectors. Both intersect in many ways to provide stability and security. In times of a crisis like this we have a few ventilators, and at the same time less than the ideal number of doctors. 
We lack technology to make life saving equipment, again a failure of the education system or rather a lack of investment and focus on the education sector. This must be looked at more seriously as today the world is ready to share vaccines and treatments, that might not be the case tomorrow. We need to take these matters seriously at the highest levels. The future modalities of threat may have less war and more threats like this pandemic we have to deal with. We need to be equipped in every way. 
Foreign Education
A lot of Pakistanis go abroad every year or are studying abroad. While generally they are seen to come from a more privileged class, whether financially or academically, this pandemic will affect their educational journeys as well. Whether it is universities’ reopening, the ability to travel, the ability to return home or the ability to obtain visas in time for scholarships and once in a lifetime opportunities. These students not only bring talent and skill back to Pakistan, but even if they don’t, they work hard to build a good image of our country.
This is another group marred by uncertainty during this pandemic. For those who are stuck abroad the ability to return home seems to be the biggest challenge. We only recently brought our students back from Wuhan. The situation in the world might discourage some students from venturing abroad this year, while others might not be able to go due to the financial downturn. 
Another big fault line in not only our education system but also in education systems around the world, has been exposed by these extra-ordinary circumstances. Education systems are divided by class and privilege, and it might be truer for us here with a booming private sector than in other places around the world. Those students whose parents are better off are coping with the pandemic better. They have access to better online classes, resources and the internet. While those who aren’t as well off or privileged have a more difficult time. They also don’t have access to the same quality of online teaching if they do at all. The students in the public school system are suffering the most. 
This is an injustice, especially during this time. Education should be the great equalizer, where merit and ability supersede background. It should be the ultimate vehicle for social mobility. However, that is not the case. We need a more inclusive system of education so the most vulnerable who also happen to be the majority don’t get left behind. 
What the Future Holds? 
Schools and universities will eventually open. When? Maybe in a few months and maybe even later. It will depend on how the pandemic progresses, if we find a vaccine or not, and how world leaders will continue to choose to respond to this crisis. However, in many ways it is easy to forget that it will not be the same again at least for the near future. Whenever such an event on a global scale happens it changes the way we function and work as a society. Schools may not have playgrounds full of children playing in close quarters. School activities may not happen for a while. Learning may not be as entertaining or as diverse as it once was. Graduating students will face a new challenge, the challenge of an economic crisis and difficult job market – but that is a topic for another day.
When schools and universities do open there will be joy but also humbleness, with lessons learned about our fragile existence and the fragile nature of the world and system we operate in. It will be more challenging for some students as compared to others. But, what is for certain is that education, like most other things, will enter a "new normal" of face masks, social distancing and other measures, some of which will become a part of the way we operate – much in the same vein as barbed wires, metal detectors and security guards became a staple across our educational institutions before. 
The Most Important Perspective
When looking at this whole crisis and analyzing what losses our students and education system may bear, it becomes easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. It becomes easy to forget the most important perspective and the only one that matters. Nothing is more important than being healthy and being safe.
With all the stress students go through and their educational careers, it is important for us as parents, teachers and as a society to reassure them of that.

The writer is a columnist, educationist and entrepreneur. He also works on youth issues in Pakistan.
 E-mail: [email protected]

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