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How Did The Lockdown Affect School Going Kids?

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Pakistan has 52 million school aged children, out of which, only 29 million are enrolled in school. The 22.8 million who aren’t, make up the second largest national out of school children population in the world. 

The importance of K-12 education (better known as primary and secondary education in Pakistan) can’t be stressed upon enough. According to UNICEF, educating children is an effective means to reduce poverty, promote gender equality and lower child mortality. 

Pakistan dedicates around 2.5% of its GDP towards education which is not much, to say the least, compared to slightly more than 6% that is allocated by much of the developed world. Many problems of the education sector can however, be overcome by the use of effective strategic planning despite this unfortunate lack of funds.  

While school closures across the world have introduced new alternatives to many K-12 educators and students, the effects on regions in the developing world which lacked a pre-existing online education infrastructure have been difficult to deal with. In Pakistan, for many parents with children in junior classes, the main concern is how to provide appropriate learning and developmental activities to keep their children busy. 

A particular problem faced by 9-12 grade students is regarding their terminal exams. Pakistan currently lacks a uniform education system with schools educating students under two different curricula to appear in either Secondary School Certificate (9th and 10th grade) and Higher Secondary Certificate (11th and 12th grade) examinations which are conducted by the Federal/Provincial education boards or O’ and A’ Level exams conducted by Cambridge Assessment International Education. 

While government-run schools offer the education board curriculum, private schools offer either of the two, with some schools having separate branches for these two systems. Private schools are considered more privileged for the obvious reason of being able to offer better facilities and resources in exchange for charging higher tuition. 

When Cambridge Assessments International Education cancelled its exams globally on March 23, there was a lot of confusion as worries among students and parents grew regarding the current school year. It was finally decided that schools would conduct an internal evaluation of students, who were supposed to appear in Cambridge May/ June exams this year and this evaluation would be used by Cambridge to grade these students. 

There is no clear word however, regarding the timing of provincial and federal education board exams that have been postponed.  

Across Pakistan, there is great disparity in the standard of education, schooling systems and the ways schools are dealing with the current crisis. While relatively clear directions for higher education institutes have been given, no such directives have been issued for schools providing K-12 education. 

Government officials have declared a school closure till May 31, as early summer break while simultaneously launching a home school TV channel. “Teleschool” while being a commendable action and definitely a positive step seems unusual during a summer break. Besides opening and closing dates, private schools have not been provided clear directives regarding academic activities.

News during the lockdown has mostly focused on political point-scoring and mudslinging while the issue of education for the 29 million children enrolled in schools across the country has largely been ignored. 

Despite not receiving as much airtime and media coverage as it should have, it is noteworthy that some steps have been taken at an individual level to raise awareness for the children whose education has been affected as a result of the school closure. Celebrity Amna Sheikh for example reads books to kids on social media. Celebrity and talk show host Sahir Lodhi highlighted the issue of elementary school education during the lockdown on his morning show and discussed the measures which need to be taken by parents in order to make the most of their children’s time. Apart from a handful of similar efforts not much has been done to address this issue. 

“The tough part is, I have to make an effort to look for educational activities for my children,” says Haris, whose daughter, a fourth grader and son, a first grader, are enrolled in a reputable school located in DHA, Karachi. He tells me that the school called him when the lock down started to pick up a homework packet for his first grader. 

He receives a homework email for his daughter once every few days. He further added that there is no assignment submission or assessment method for the children’s progress by the school. 

Haris also stated that the school did not conduct online education as some of the other schools in the city. He adds that both parents search for educational resources to keep their children engaged in such a critical developmental phase of their lives. Being a higher education institution faculty himself, he tells me about the disparity in internet accessibility for online education and how students in rural areas of the country who are enrolled at his institution have to literally climb on hills in order to receive good internet connectivity. 

Mustafa, a 7th grader who goes to school in Islamabad ecstatically tells me his online school schedule. “It’s very organized,” he says, as he reads out his daily timetable provided by the school for their live online classes. He has recently completed his online school tests that were conducted by the school using ‘whatsapp’, the now very popular app ‘Zoom’ and a scanning app for the test papers known as ‘cam- scanner’. His daily live classes are administered via webcam and if a student’s webcam is turned off or if they are not visible on camera, they are marked absent for that class session. 

He further explains the procedure, “Each student’s mic is muted during the teacher instruction time, and when she asks students to share their opinion the students turn their mic on to reply.” 

Aniyah, a 12th grade A’ Level student who hails from Lahore and is also attending online school now, is not very happy about the method of assessments and the fact that grading would be used by Cambridge for her A’ Level result. “It’s not fair” she says, “that a lot of students have found alternative ways to easily cheat during tests.” However, she feels lucky knowing that she is part of a fraction of school-going children in the country who are able to attend online classes during this very difficult time.

Ms. Nida, a fifth-grade teacher from Karachi shares her daily school schedule. She says that her online live classes resume five days a week at the regular school hours i.e 9am to 1:30pm. She conducts online classes via zoom. “It was difficult at first”, she says, “but now I have become accustomed to it.” Furthermore, she grades the students’ work that is emailed to her within strict deadlines. She adds that throughout her career she wished for a teaching job where she could work from home but now thinks otherwise as she misses her students and co-workers. 

Meanwhile Samreen, a thirteen-year-old fifth grade student, whose family moved from Sahiwal to Karachi a few years ago, and currently resides in a relatively less affluent part of Karachi, is amazed to know about online schooling. She has a lot of questions as she tries to figure out how a teacher would control the class from such a distance. She longs to go back to school as she tells me how her days are spent during the lockdown. “Uttho Samreen! Bhai aur baap bhookay bethay hoye hain… tujhe tou koi fikar nahi apni maa ki jo kalli lagi rehti hai sara din… teri neend hi puri na hoti hai… subah ke aath baj gai hain!” (Wakeup Samreen, your brothers and father are hungry and you do not care a bit about your mother, who is working all day by herself… and your sleep is never complete it’s 8 in the morning), is her daily wakeup call these days by her mother. 

School might be out but Samreen goes with her mother to work every day where she’s employed as a cook. Samreen adds that although she misses her school friends, evenings are fun as she gets to stay up late. “The most enjoyable part of this (lockdown) is when my parents, siblings and I stay up late each night to watch movies on television with snacks that I buy on my way back from work with mother.”

By now it is well known even in traditionally uninformed segments of society that this is no ordinary time period. How we deal with it might well end up defining who we are in the times to come. In this picture full of contrasts and disparity it is heartening to see the efforts being made by many students, teachers, and parents standing in the face of adversity to avoid wasting this precious time of mental, physical and emotional development.

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