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Pandemic, unprepared authorities have made 2020 Sindh’s worst academic year

The year 2020 saw a global closure of educational institutions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, making it especially the worst possible academic year for Sindh, with students, parents, teachers and non-teaching staff suffering stress as well as academic and financial losses.

The authorities concerned were completely unprepared for the situation and, thus, failed to implement an alternative system that could provide all the students of the country with equal access to education.

Though educators and senior officials tried to introduce innovative solutions for education and to adopt new approaches to transform the system, all such attempts bore no fruit. In Sindh alone, some nine million children were promoted to the next grades without having to take any exam. In Karachi, around 60,000 students were unable to get an admission in college because the number of passed students was much higher than the number of available seats.

Moreover, hundreds of schools had to be shut down because of a financial crisis, while public and private universities failed to move their classes online, not to mention students living in far-flung areas lacked internet availability.

And the institutions that were able to take advantage of technology saw low attendance because power outages and unreliable internet coverage kept their students away from classes.

Throughout the year parents’ associations, private schools’ bodies and the relevant authorities kept shifting the blame on each other. On government level too the provincial administration led by the Pakistan Peoples Party and the federal administration led by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf politicised the matter.

The Sindh government announced the closure of schools in the province before the central administration. While the federal government is still busy using the Covid-19 card against the opposition parties.

In a recent statement the Sindh government expressed doubt if educational institutions can be reopened next month, following which the federal government announced that the matter will be decided in the meeting of the country’s education ministers on January 4.

On December 7, Unicef had urged governments across the world to “prioritise reopening schools and take all actions possible to make them as safe as possible”, stressing that “nationwide closures of schools should be avoided at all costs”.

Online classes

When the first case of Covid-19 emerged in Karachi on February 26, the Sindh government shuttered educational institutions across the province the next day. The rest of the provinces followed suit on March 15.

At the same time, provincial governments and educators stressed moving classes online. But a few weeks later, students across the country started complaining that their areas were out of internet coverage.

Even the students living in big cities were of the view that they would be unable to attend online classes regularly because of interrupted electricity supply. However, a tiny number of educational institutions were focused on making their classes accessible and capable of resolving the issues being faced by their students. Programmes like home-based learning, assignments, supportive learning and distance education were introduced, but children from working-class communities were unable to fully benefit from them.

Commercialisation

On the one hand the online education sector was almost paralysed in the country, but on theother, a number of companies jumped into the market by offering educational solutions.

According to some of the companies, they intended to modernise the education system with the use of technology in teaching and learning. By offering their services, these companies also collaborated with the federal government.

Later on, a dedicated learning channel named Teleschool was launched from the platform of the state-run PTV. Interestingly, the government could not use the existing distance learning systems of the Allama Iqbal Open University and the Virtual University.

However, in the name of promoting education in the country, educational technology companies are setting up their offices. But there is no government agency that can regulate them.

Education experts believe that the use of technology in education will influence parents and children as well as learning and teaching. However, internet connectivity is still a big question mark in Pakistan.

Sorry state

When Covid-19 led to the closure of schools, colleges and universities in mid-March, public institutions were not prepared for the emergency. Teachers were untrained and unfamiliar with the use of technology.

In some schools the use of smartphones was prohibited for students. Even though information & communications technology had been rapidly replacing traditional teaching and learning, teachers of government schools had no such experience.

During the closure of schools, the only complaints were made by the parents sending their children to private institutions, which at least made attempts to continue their students’ education.

But the parents whose children are enrolled at public institutions continue to lack any voice on any forum, while the authorities concerned have no mechanism in place to reduce the disruption of government schools’ academic activities.

Fees without tuition

In April, on the directives of Sindh Education Minister Saeed Ghani, the Directorate of Inspection & Registration of Private Institutions Sindh (Dirpis) made it mandatory for all private schools to grant 20 per cent concession in tuition fees for April and May. However, private schools’ associations ignored the government’s orders and took the matter to court.

Later on, the court decided in favour of private schools’ bodies, so the provincial government withdrew its concession order. But a majority of parents are still of the view that they are paying hefty fees for nothing because almost all the schools lack the capacity to conduct online classes.

Child labour

Rana Asif Habib, who works for Pakistan’s neglected street children, said that during the closure of schools thousands of children either fell victim to child labour or dropped out of school.

According to him, over 10 million children across the country will no longer be able to resume their education. These children were students at public and low-fee private schools.

Permanent closure

Dirpis data shows that there are some 13,000 private schools across Sindh, including 8,000 in Karachi alone. Of them, estimate Dirpis officials, around a thousand institutions have permanently shut down during the Covid-19 lockdown. The schools’ administrators and owners and private schools’ bodies said that a financial crunch caused the shutdown.

Colleges, universities

This year brought no major changes in the policies of public colleges and universities. However, universities across the province have increased their fee structures in 2020. The state of public colleges remained unchanged: they still have a shortage of teachers, appointments of principals are yet to be made and libraries continue to lack facilities.

Research institutes and faculty members have been facing financial difficulties. None of the universities in Sindh was able to successfully conduct online classes and reach all of its students.

However, since the outbreak of the second wave of Covid-19, during which educational institutes have been closed once again, some universities have been trying to conduct online classes. But the YouTube channel launched by the college education department went offline in this wave.

Bodies, authorities

According to the representatives of different private schools’ associations, they have held protests and informed the Sindh and federal governments about their problems, but to no avail.

They are of the view that the authorities concerned have left the private sector unattended. They believe the government should provide them subsidies and waive off the commercial taxes.

The school industry is in a severe crisis at the moment. However, the provincial government believes that the federal government should meet their demands. Moreover, private schools’ bodies lament that they had not been taken on board before the closure of schools.

Education emergency

It has been around four years since the Sindh government declared an education emergency in the province, but the fact is that a number of school buildings are still in a dilapidated condition, while thousands of schools lack toilets and potable water.

The past four years have seen four or so education ministers in the province. This year the education department was handed over to Saeed Ghani, and since then four secretaries have been changed.

Ad hocism

The educational boards are still suffering from ad hocism. The Sindh Board of Technical Education, and the boards of secondary & intermediate education in Larkana, Mirpurkhas, Nawabshah, Hyderabad and Sukkur have been functioning without permanent officers. Junior officers have been tasked with responsibilities of key positions, including secretaries and controllers of examinations.

Uncertainty

All precautions were taken to avoid another major breakout of the novel coronavirus during the time educational institutions remained closed for around seven months. However, after the institutions reopened on September 15, then were suddenly closed again on November 26. Whatever lies in store for the education sector now is anyone’s guess.




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