If six months ago, anybody would have asked students whether they would prefer a long holiday, almost all of them would have unhesitantly and undoubtedly shouted a big ‘YES’. Following the unprecedented changes that have taken place across the world in a span of a few months, almost all schools have shut down and remained closed even today.
According to the estimates of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), less than two months after the confirmation of the first case of novel coronavirus, more than 90 percent of the world’s students were already affected by school closures.[i] While some parts of the world have restarted their economic activities and reopened schools, more than 1.1 billion students still remain affected (accounting for 64 percent of the world’s total student population), with 134 countrywide closures in place.[ii]
Here in Nepal, within the 84 days of nationwide lockdown amidst the coronavirus pandemic, the long holidays for schools are still in place with only very few schools, mostly in urban areas, operating online. Despite the recent easing of the lockdown, schools will remain closed for a minimum of 21 more days as part of the first phase implementation. Due to this, social unrest among the public has started growing. The country is, thus, in a state where it has to start planning about its reopening strategies in schools for the coming days. Both schools and students have to be well prepared to face experimental teaching and learning methods, which will be a part of the new normal. Along the same lines, some countries have already taken interesting approaches in the education sector to reopen their schools and ensure the safety of both students and teachers.
Following the confirmation of the first coronavirus case in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, the country instituted many lockdown measures to curb the spread of the virus from January. Due to lockdown measures, schools were shut down across the country, affecting around 200 million students. On March 18, China reported no new local cases of COVID-19 for the first time since the outbreak, and thus, started to lift the restrictions gradually.
Now, amidst the school openings which began early May, progressive changes have been made. Schools have reopened starting with final year students of their secondary school education. Students have to pass through temperature checks at school entrances which display a ‘green’ code of health via China’s smartphone health code program, wear masks at all times except for during gym class and lunch, and enter and leave at specific times to avoid crowding.[iii]
Like most countries, schools in Taiwan had also extended their winter breaks for an extra two weeks in February due to the pandemic. But by February 25, these schools began operating as usual.
In the new temporary normal, students have been sitting with plastic tabletop desk partitions (table dividers) and individual chalk squares for outdoor play as additional measures to conducting temperature checks to curb the spread of the virus.[iv]
Schools began reopening from April 20 in Norway primarily for children in grades 1 through 4. Upper schools and universities are still closed. In the schools that are open, students are divided into classes of groups of no more than 15 students and their desks and other items are washed everyday as a way of taking precaution.
In Bhutan, given a surge in e-learning, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have partnered with the government and launched student-data packages to ensure accessibility to e-learning sites. This also means that other services such as TikTok, WhatsApp, Snapchat, torrent, etc will be blocked so that data consumption is reduced. Given the ease and inclusivity that this move carries, over 250,000 students have registered for these packages.
Sri Lanka is also one of the countries where ISPs have enabled free data access to a number of web services. These services are connected to a network of public universities and include a learning management system (LMS), which are then connected to websites of national research institutions as well. This approach taken by the government and the ISPs is a welcome move to ensure that students can access Zoom with free or reduced data charges.
In France, the reopening of schools has brought about new experiments such as making it mandatory for students of age 11 years and above to wear masks. Other than this, in the city of La Grand-Croix of France, primary school students are also required to wear protective visor caps made by the city council.
In Australia, to enforce social distancing in a crowded classroom is a huge task. In this regard, New South Wales reopened schools with students attending school lectures in-person one day a week and continuing the rest from home.
In Denmark, the solution to dealing with COVID-19 pandemic has been to move classes outdoors. For instance, music lessons and other classes are being held outdoors, such as in parks, because of the viability and safety of this approach. Moreover, large morning assemblies are avoided and videos have also been prepared offering tips about adapting in the school environment to parents and children.
These are some of the many examples of how schools have started rethinking ways of opening, prioritizing their students and educators, and ensuring that the spread of the virus is curbed.
Lessons for Nepal
Since decades, there have been huge disparities in the type of schooling across different parts of the country and this has been magnified due to the pandemic. With a rise in COVID-19 cases, there has also been a distinctive rise of e-learning. However, many parts of the nation are still unreachable because of the digital divide. The internet penetration in Nepal is 72 percent wherein an overwhelming number of them rely on mobile data to access the internet (such as Facebook and YouTube), and only 12 percent have broadband internet connection.[v] Most of them lack technical knowledge on how online platforms for studies work. Moreover, as per the Economic Survey of 2019/20, among 29,707 public schools, only 8,366 have computers and even within this, only 12 percent schools offer IT based study with internet connectivity. Thus, much of the nation’s students are deprived of essential schooling.
Some students are subject to extreme poverty, economic vulnerability and gender disparities, all of which were already present because of the pandemic and are now even more heightened indicating that while many students might continue their education once the schools reopen, the same might not be the case for many others. Likewise, even for the students that continue, new sets of coping with a changed environment may bring unprecedented challenges.
Needless to say, the country has to start planning its reopening approaches while also considering how to handle the shift towards the adoption of online learning effectively.
For physically reopening schools, references from different countries regarding how to place desks and benches, how to creatively involve them in classes without having them undergo a mental pressure due to the changed environment has to be emphasized. Other moves such as avoiding long assemblies, taking students outdoors while also marking distance with chalks are the basic arrangements that can be made.
On the online learning front, given the digital divide that exists in Nepal, it can take reference from countries like Bhutan and Sri Lanka where the government has partnered with ISPs and private service providers to improve the internet access and coverage to start online classes. However, acknowledging the fact that the majority of the schools and households in different parts of the country do not even have digital gadgets and because the fibre optics installation project to the entire rural Nepal is still in its primary phase, it is imperative to note that more creative approaches have to be used to have a wider reach.
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) had formed an expert team to suggest ways to launch online instruction from school to university level in early-April, and had allocated NPR 70 million to start the preparations needed.[vi] The government has also collaborated with radio partners and introduced radio programs/jingles with potential learning activities for children during lockdown (Radio Annaapurna Kaski 93.4).[vii] It has also introduced regular television shows targeting school children from the first to the tenth grade, and has also published a schedule for the same. Students from grade one to eight are taught using NTV+ channel and the students of ninth and tenth are taught through ‘School Education’ channels of Dish Home, NET TV and Max TV.[viii] These are some of the many ways in which learning can be emphasized. Television and radio broadcast channels, ISPs, Nepal Telecommunication Authority, schools and local level government can jointly work to bring a sea of changes to enhance learning and access for all students. Moving on, the government can also work closely with private service providers to offer online teacher training for educators or train them in making videos for YouTube to be able to impart learning in an effective manner.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when a range of disruptions have paralyzed the education sector to a great extent, it has to be realized that this time is also an opportunity for the government to invest in education and give momentum to developing an improved, updated and inclusive education system.
As the country starts to loosen restrictions and prepare in-person instructions by reopening schools, the government of Nepal has to undertake every other country’s approach of opening schools as a learning to be practiced for increased participation and inclusivity while also ensuring safety for teachers as well as students.
Nasala Maharjan is a Bachelor's in Business Administration (BBA Honors) graduate from Kathmandu University with a major in Finance. She is mostly interested in researching and writing about economic development and contemporary issues in Nepal. She joined Nepal Economic Forum (NEF) as a Research Fellow in 2019 and is currently working as an aspiring beed at beed management.