Education in the Time of Pendemic

Atif Sheikh

Education in the Time of Pendemic

In August 2020, the United Nations warned through its Policy Brief titled ‘Education During Covid-19 and Beyond’ that “With the combined effect of the pandemic’s worldwide economic impact and the school closures, the learning crisis could turn into a generational catastrophe.” The report highlights that the pandemic has created the largest disruption of education systems in history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries and all continents. Closures of schools and other learning spaces have impacted 94 percent of the world’s student population, up to 99 percent in low- and lower-middle income countries. It further adds that some 23.8 million additional children and youth (from pre-primary to tertiary) may drop out or not have access to school next year due to the pandemic’s economic impact alone. Moreover, there is growing concern that if these learners are not properly supported, they may never return to school. The report further says that in the pre-Covid world, more than 250 million children were out of school, and nearly 800 million adults were illiterate. Increased fiscal pressure in the wake of the pandemic may lead to a cut in the education budgets of many countries. Moreover, the situation may also pose formidable challenges to development assistance in this sector. Ensuring learning continuity during the time of school closures has become a priority for governments the world over and many of them turned to Information and communications technology (ICT). However, limited or no access to technology infrastructure; and low levels of digital literacy among students, parents and teachers are some formidable challenges in this regard.
Covid-19 has had varying impacts on employment and salaries. An analysis of the recent data shows that only a few countries did not pay statutory teachers. However, delays in salary payments were more common. In the public sector, teachers working on a contract basis were affected the most, as their contracts were not renewed or extended. In addition, parents, especially those in low-income countries, stopped paying fees which led to furloughs, ergo, a loss of livelihoods for teachers. A survey conducted by Education International has revealed that among 93 teacher unions from 67 countries, nearly two-thirds reported that education workers in private institutions were significantly affected, with teachers on temporary contracts and support personnel most affected.

Atif Sheikh1
Education is not only a fundamental human right in itself, but is also an enabling right with a direct impact on the realization of all other human rights. In Pakistan, around 30 percent of children are deprived of this constitutional right. It means that one of every four children was out of school in the pre-pandemic time. According to the data contained in the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement (PSLM) Survey 2018-19, as many as 23.55 percent of children between the ages of five and sixteen years never went to school while the ratio of dropouts is 6.5 percent. Some pertinent questions that arise in one’s mind amidst this situation are: Will this number of out-of-school children and dropouts increase in the wake of the pandemic? Will more children in private-sector schools leave the school owing to non-payment of fees than their counterparts in the public sector? Private schools have warned that students who default on fee payment will not be allowed to attend classes and take the exams, as they will be rusticated—parents are regularly receiving such messages from school management.
When parents are already facing financial constraints caused by the pandemic, then who is responsible for forced rustication and drop-out of children from school? Is it the parents or the school management? Private schools argue that they have to pay salaries to their teaching and the allied staff from the money they collect in the form of fees, and if they do not receive those, how can they pay the salaries and building rent? Parents, on the other hand, assert that schools are service-providers and when they have not provided the requisite services, how are they entitled to receive fees? It is also to be noted here that elite schools did receive fees during both the waves of the Covid-19 pandemic but medium-sized and small schools are facing difficulties in recovering their dues. Resultantly, they have either fired the teachers and the allied staff or have made big cuts to their salaries. Moreover, when people faced a significant drop in their incomes or lost their jobs, they made the difficult decision to stop paying school fees and for other educational expenses of their kids. This may also cause a steep rise in the dropout ratio and even new admissions can decline.

Private schools tried to allay the concerns of parents on the non-provision of services through online classes. How effective was this arrangement during both the waves of the pandemic is known to all of us. Some ground realities are also sufficient reason to raise questions on the efficacy of online classes. According to a report titled “Digital Pakistan 2020,” internet penetration in Pakistan stood at 35% in January 2020. PSLM survey 2017-18 reports that only 11.8 percent of households in Pakistan have active internet connection while only 15 percent of the households have computers. However, mobile phones are present in around 94 percent of the country’s households. Newzoo’s Global Report suggests that only 15.9 percent of Pakistan’s population owns smartphones. Since such a phone is usually carried by the head of the family, how kids will be able to attend online classes when he is out of the home? And, if there is only one smartphone in a household and more than one child are to attend different classes, then what should they do? So, if parents want their kids to attend online classes, they will have to buy a digital device, get an internet connection; and it means additional financial burden. But the story doesn’t end here. In many parts of our country, a very low internet speed is another big problem. Another perspective of this perplexing issue in this equation is that the teachers were assigned the responsibility to conduct online classes without any training and guidance as most of them had no prior experience in this domain. In this state of affairs, the use of radio and television by the Government of Pakistan for distant learning is a praiseworthy step.
With the start of the new academic year, private schools have started sending vouchers to parents, asking parents to pay school fees and other dues and charges. I personally know that a private school, which has a countrywide presence, has sent vouchers to parents whereby they have been asked to deposit fees as well as annual fund, stationery charges, etc. The parents have also been informed that they will have to deposit the syllabus charges next month.
Parents moan that schools are demanding annual fund and stationery charges in spite of the fact that there have been no regular classes during the previous academic year. Moreover, books the children were supposed to read during the previous year are also the same, but they are asked to pay for the new ones. This will have a deleterious impact on our already fragile educational standards. A glimpse into the worrying future can be had from the Annual Status of Education Report 2019, released in January 2020 by ASER Pakistan, illustrates that 41% of children in grade 5 which cannot read a simple story in Urdu, Sindhi or Pashto. The report says, “More importantly if we look at learning at grade 8 or lower secondary 14% of children are still unable to read a grade 2 level story in Urdu/Sindhi/Pashto. This is unacceptable, amplifying the call for action to the fundamental challenge that ‘enrolment/schooling does not mean learning’!”
Similarly, 67 percent of grade-V students from urban areas and 55 percent of those from rural areas can read an English-language sentence of grade-II. As regards mathematics, the situation is that only 66 percent of students from urban areas and 57 percent from rural ones can do subtraction and division with 2-digits.
The role of private-sector schools in our country becomes more crucial when we find that it is impossible for our government to provide education to all the children in the country. Declining standards of, and public trust in, government schools have also contributed to creating an environment that is conducive to the proliferation of private schools. It is proved by the fact that the number of private-sector educational institutions in Pakistan has swollen by a whopping 48 percent between 2007-08 and 2016-17 while that increase in the public sector was a mere 2 percent. Likewise, the enrolment in the private sector grew by 54 percent against a 12 percent increase in the public sector institutions.
As per Pakistan Education Statistics 2016-17, published by the National Education Management Information System, around 36 percent of educational institutions of all levels (excluding those established by foundations) are in the private sector. Their number in middle, high, higher secondary/inter schools and colleges is more than that in the public sector as 65.5 percent of primary schools, 58.4 percent of high schools and 61 percent of higher secondary/inter colleges belong in the private sector. Moreover, as many as 38 percent of students, and almost 50 percent of teachers, are in private sector institutions. It means that every third institution, every third student and every second teacher is in the private sector.
The reasons behind high dropout ratio in Pakistan are very complex as they can vary from province to province and even from district to district. Many a research study conducted on this issue has revealed that poverty, travelling distance from school, low quality of education, lack of amenities, un- or poorly trained teachers, teacher absenteeism, lack of female teachers in girls’ schools, medium of language, security issues faced especially by girls’ schools, over-packed classrooms, flawed monitoring mechanism, illiterate parents and poor health and nutrition are some factors due to which dropout rate is so high in Pakistan.
Can the number of dropouts spike in the wake of Covid-19? When I put this question before renowned educationist Dr Iftikhar Ahmad Baig, he answered it in the following words:
“We still do not have any data available to ascertain how many students have dropped out. However, we need to keep a few things in mind. First of all, students of public- sector schools are unlikely to drop out as they have no significant educational expenditures. When their schools open, they will definitely rejoin. Second, dropout may also not be considerable in private sector schools as most of their students are those whose parents can afford their expenses. So, if there are regular classes in these schools, they will surely pay fees and other charges.”
When I asked him about the impact of Covid-19 on our private and government schools, he said, “My very reliable and responsible friends in two private universities have told me that their fee recovery ratio usually hovered between 65 and 70 percent. But, surprisingly, it was 98 percent during the pandemic. But, despite that many private-sector institutions deducted salaries of their staff by around 50 percent. Even guards and gardeners, who are already poor and are paid low salaries, were not spared. The owners spent the money saved in this way on some other projects. It’s a norm here in Pakistan that a businessman tries to make the most of every opportunity presented to him.”
However, one positive thing that emerged from the Covid-19 crisis is that we have started realizing the importance and significance of schools in our lives. Nowadays, amidst the closure of schools, parents are struggling to work with their kids. Moreover, financial constraints have made people turn toward public-sector schools and we may see a meteoric rise in enrolments in those.

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