Coronavirus (COVID-19-pandemic) is not only a global public health issue, but is also a political, economic, cultural, religious and education issue.  There is a crack, a crack in everything. We can see that the cracks are everywhere-on the surface and much deeper. One of the deeper cracks is the crack in the learning processes of more than one billion students around the world. 

According to United National Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 190 countries around the world, including Pakistan, have temporarily closed educational institutions (schools, colleges and universities) in an attempt to halt and contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown of education institutions seems to be a rational and logical decision for an effective implementation of ‘social distancing’- one of the global responses to lower the transmission of the virus. The school closures are good, but no one really knows how long the closures will continue. 

As of April 24, 2020, these worldwide closures of education institutions have impacted 91 percent of the world’s student population. According to UNESCO and CNN, the learning of approximately 1.6 billion students has been interrupted by the closures of education institutions around the globe. The COVID-19 pandemic, like elsewhere in the world, has negatively impacted the education of millions of students in Pakistan. Parents and teachers have growing concerns about: what are the likely impacts of long closures of education institutions on students’ short-term learning and long-term success? The impact of schools, colleges and universities closures on students’ learning, no doubt, is negative and disproportionate. The closures is having more negative impacts on the learning of students from low-income families or students of rural areas compared to students from affluent backgrounds and urban areas. Socio-economic status (SES) and geographical location do matter in short-term learning and long term education success. SES matters to sociologists as it has a strong effect on the access an individual has to education, the quality of that education, and how high a level he or she can reach.  A thick body of published literature in sociology of education has persistently pointed out that those with good SES enable their children to get good education and earn valuable credentials. The COVID-19 pandemic is inflaming inequalities in education. The pandemic is following patterns of entrenched inequalities in education opportunities.

On March 13, 2020 when the Government of Pakistan decided to close educational institution as of physical distancing policy to slow transmission of the virus, elite private educational institutions (schools and universities), in the urban centres of Pakistan, started online classes to minimise the disruption to their students’ learning. For many of these elite schools and universities, that was a small leap. Their students’ have educated parents, laptop/desktop with internet connection at their homes.  In fact, this is not the compensation for the rich and meaningful teaching and learning experiences of classroom interaction. Nevertheless, in some ways, the online classes are making up some of the learning loss as these have kept students engaged with the contents. In addition to their curriculum contents, they are learning how to use technology for education. They communicate with teachers and collect lessons/assignments using email, websites, engaged in videoconferencing, students have formed study groups using the same technologies and educational software and apps. But they’re also losing social interaction. They’re losing sports and extracurricular activities which are as much important as curriculum contents. Keeping aside the loss in social interaction, poor internet connection, noise, lack of independent learning skills among kids and young children and their emotional maturity to maintain their attention, it can be argued that these students of the elite private educational institutions in the urban areas have learning advantage over those from disadvantaged SES who attend public education institutions in general and those in the rural areas in particular.

From March 13 to April 14, 2020, unlike the elite private education institutions’ students, public schools’ students (74 percent in the rural areas and 41 percent in the urban areas) remained unattended. Their schools closures were notified ‘summer vacation.’ It was only on April 14, 2020 when the Federal Ministry of Education, in tandem with PTV, started the first ever teleschool in Pakistan to help public schools’ students and minimize their learning loss. It is an appreciable initiative and effort. I hope that some students in the urban centres of the country may be getting help from the teleschool, particularly those whose parents are educated, financially secure and have flexible working arrangement, and who know the importance of education. As a sociologist of education, I have a huge concern for the majority of students in rural areas who may not be benefitting from teleschool. A long list of factors can be mentioned here to substantiate assertion that the teleschoolwill not make up the learning loss of public school students in general and those in the rural area in particular. Majority of the students do not have TV in their homes. If some of them have TV, 14 to 16 hours of unscheduled load-shedding in rural areas will not allow them to benefit from the teleschool. School closures, for low income families, means vacation - a time in which children are expected to help their families. Children get engaged with their families doing agriculture, bringing wood and looking after cattle. Some are even pushed into child labour. Similarly, the absence of an educational environment at home; children’s and parents’ lack of interest in schooling; household poverty; pressures of domestic responsibilities; and the absence of fathers due to outstation work are the factors that will lead irreparable learning loss for these children. If the school closures extends beyond May 31, 2020, which seems to be extended, it will cause disproportionate learning-loss. 

We lack academic research on how children from different SES spend their winters/summers vacations. Nevertheless, a considerable number of studies on summer/winter learning loss in the global north have persistently revealed that children from lower SES, during summer/winter vacation, do not spend engaged time in academic content compared to children from good SES. The thick body of published literature on summer learning loss concludes that when students returned to schools after their winters/summers, students from low SES are falling behind students from good SES on many education performance indicators. Insight from various studies on summers/winters learning-loss enables me to argue that the COVID-19 is causing irreparable learning-loss to students from low SES compared to students from good SES.

If schools are likely to be closed for a considerable period beyond May 31, 2020, people in the helm of affairs should do more than teleschool to reduce the learning loss of public schools’ students.  Federal and provincial government should ensure that education has priority space in their response to the COVID-19 crisis. Executive education officers, school heads, and teachers need to be contacted to devise local strategies for teaching children in their respective areas. Since schools are closed, resources of Independent Monitoring Unit or school monitoring may be used for the education of disadvantaged students during COVID-19. Under the smart lockdown policy, selective reopening of schools in rural areas with COVID-19 protocols-maintaining social distancing, wearing masks, and practicing other hygiene rules - may be considered. The government must unlock the capacities of education department at the federal, provincial and district levels to keep the education moving on for the most disadvantaged students. The district education offices must play their role to ensure that students come back to schools as children from low income families in general and girls in particular did not return to schools after long vacations. Last but not the least, when we will be able to reopen schools during summer, the government may think about expanding school timing to provide additional time and instruction to compensate the learning loss. The government should not opt for “social promotion”-passing students to the next grade without them learning and qualifying the contents of the existing level-as it will disable the students to understand contents of the next grade and will further deteriorate the existing poor quality of education in public schools.  

–The author is Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad.