Earlier this week, the government announced reopening educational institutions cautiously in different phases, starting with resumption of high schools and above on September 15. The resumption of middle schools and primary sections, the announcement said, will be phased-in by the end of September after reviewing the situation. SOPs for schools, both private and public, include splitting the student body in half and teaching them on alternate days or in two shifts on the same day. Schools are also required to ensure students who show symptoms of COVID-19 stay at home. It is high time we thought seriously about how the COVID-19 outbreak has disrupted schooling and how we might bounce back from the setback to ensure catching-up with the learning curve students should have been on sans the outbreak.

While the actual impact of COVID-19 can only be determined once data is available, at this point one can only hypothesise. Of the many hypotheses that come to mind, three merit special attention because of their long-term implications for schooling and learning outcomes. First, there is virtually nearly unanimous agreement among experts in education that the six-month closure of schools due to the outbreak will adversely affect learning. The World Bank estimates that the outbreak is likely to result in loss of about 0.6 years’ worth of learning at schools. This will likely translate into much greater learning losses in developing countries where, according to the Bank, over half of students are living in learning poverty—unable to read and understand a simple text at the age of 10. More ominous findings echo from similar school closures in Pakistan: according to a study by Andrabi and fellows there were learning losses equivalent to about two years of schooling among students who lived closer to the faultline in the 2008 earthquake in Pakistan compared to those who lived far away. This deficit likely stemmed from, among other things, the 14 weeks of school closures in the affected area. In a country where—to quote from the ASER report 2018—school-going students either learn “too little” or “too slow” under normal conditions, a six-month closure likely must have dealt a serious blow to the already precarious learning outcomes. When our students return, more than usual efforts will be required to even reach the pre-existing learning levels, let alone reaching higher levels of learning which would require nothing short of a herculean effort.

Secondly, and more importantly, the adverse effect on learning will likely be distributed unequally among different geographic and economic strata of the society. A couple of weeks into school closures, a myriad of educational institutions went online and continued teaching and learning activities, partially if not completely. The government made efforts at continuity of learning through the tele-school programme on television. Many education service providers and entrepreneurs came forward with their own paid models of teaching and learning, mainly revolving around the provision of online tutors and learning resources. A cursory look at the above responses suggests that people who live in the remote areas and those who are poor—the two groups being not necessarily overlapping—would be the ones to burden the heaviest learning losses from school closures. Tell-tale stories from northern areas of Pakistan where students had to climb mountains to gain access to the internet (and thereby attend online classes) suggest that this is most likely the case. It is for the governments and civil society to see to it to make concerted efforts to rectify the unequal distribution of the learning losses among different strata of the society.

Thirdly, there are plausible reasons to believe that the pandemic will influence decision making and behaviours of education providers as well as parents in ways that are likely to push learning levels further down. If one looks at the education ecosystem of Pakistan, the private sector plays a huge role in providing education: it accounts for 31 percent of all educational institutions and 35 percent of all enrolments across Pakistan, according to the Asian Development Bank. A myriad of private schools are low-cost private schools. Research shows that although these schools are under-resourced compared to public schools, their learning outcomes remain comparatively better. If we think of Covid-19 as an income shock, providers as well as recipients of low-cost private school education are likely to be hit hard financially. Such schools may shut down due to financial woes. Similarly, income shocks to households who previously sent their children to low-cost private schools may force them to switch to public schools at best, or withdraw their children from schooling at worst. If they decide to switch, their children will now be going to schools that have, on average, weaker learning outcomes compared to their previous schools. In addition, they will likely increase the burden on the already poor performing public schools, thereby pushing them to a learning equilibrium that is further below. If, however, they decide to exit school, their learning may halt altogether. Either way, such students stand to lose. This situation depicts just the tip of the iceberg. The outbreak has likely already led to lay off of staff, issues around learning spaces where buildings were rented, and loss of revenues in the private education sector, a situation where learning is set to be affected adversely even if schools do not shut.

Not all is gloom and doom, though. While the pandemic has left schooling in a disarray, it has also opened up a window of opportunity. One can visibly see parents, students and schools break the mental barrier of using digital resources following the pandemic. This has enabled the burgeoning of a nascent market for remote schooling and tutoring, in addition to acclimating children to using digital gadgets to enhance learning. More importantly, it has resulted in a rejuvenated interest in deliberating education sector malaises, among politicians, civil society, and experts alike. There is a tremendous opportunity for all the stakeholders to come together in the interest of our children and our future. In the short term, the government may think of relieving the immediate constraints that threaten smooth transition to schooling in the not-yet-post-pandemic Pakistan. This could be in the form of religiously implementing SOPs to sooth the worries of parents and teachers, extending support to private schools and education support services providers to relieve their pressing concerns to keep them afloat, and taking extraordinary measures to track and mitigate deficit in learning outcomes. The civil society too shall pitch in. Parental involvement is the need of the hour, not only to keep children safe but also create a positive pressure to expedite learning. Research after research shows that the single most important way of parental involvement is for them to set high expectations of their children. If parents set high expectations of their children, to keep themselves safe from the outbreak and to put in extra efforts to learn upon returning to schools, we have a good shot at bouncing back. As civil society, we can pitch in through volunteering to support learning, through time or financial support. One can think of volunteering to teach small groups of students or taking the responsibility to pay fees for students on the brink of dropouts due to inability to pay. If history is any guide, our civil society steps up in the face of hardships, be it floods, earthquakes or any other disaster. COVID-19 is no less of a disaster for schooling and learning and my hope is for all of us to step up and rescue our children and our future. This would sometimes mean taking steps beyond our zones of comfort. But if we are to come through stronger as a society, I’m afraid staying in our comfort zones is not going to help. As they say, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.

Yaqoob Ali

The writer is a graduate of the School of Education, LUMS.