I’m writing this piece from my work desk, at my office here at Krishna Galli, while most parts of the world seem to be working on a busy working day from their impromptu workspaces such as the kitchen table of their houses. Trips are being cancelled, schools are being shut down and no form of international travel has been allowed in some countries. Every word regarding the coronavirus is echoing and the situations are changing.
Having my emails spammed with titles like ‘America looks unprepared for the spread of covid-19’, ‘Coronavirus, China’s economy and Indian police’, ‘The politics of pandemics’ and so on every day and even several times during a day is a glaring reminder that lessons, precautions, symptoms, things-to-do are being thrown to us, indicating a new beginning of something deadly. This pandemic does not have a definite end as of now. However, the end of March, extended to even April, seems like a waiting period for most of the people. Currently, it feels almost like someone somewhere in the world took up a project, and before completing it, has caused distressing effects spreading at a massive rate everywhere; the ones we watch movies about!
The one thing that I have been realizing is that being educated at a time like this is the most important for anyone to act sane, help people calm down and handle things patiently, by differentiating between reliable and unreliable sources of news and staying aware. In the quest of educating myself about the impacts of coronavirus on various sectors, I came across several articles surrounding the education sector. Unravelling the education story of the coronavirus, being a subject of interest to me, seemed important.
State of School Closures
Education, in the old days, was synonymous to home-schooling and a privilege to a few elites only. As years progressed and awareness started increasing, mass schooling was born. Mass compulsory schooling is a social construct that mandates students to go to classes and study a syllabus proposed for their academic growth according to their grade levels. Worldwide, people have adapted to this construct. Now, at the time of the pandemic, while disruptions in various sectors are being visible, it is only a matter of time that it would spread out to schools.
According to the United Nations, “the global scale and speed of current educational disruption are unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education.” In the past years, the debates of homeschooling versus studying in classrooms have not come upfront in Nepal as much as public versus private schools have. People have been wary of teacher strikes, PABSON’s privatization and cartels in the education sector, but never have they given a second thought to what would happen if none of these types of schools existed. However, now is the time to ponder upon the state of school closures regardless of their type because the education upheaval, which had affected nearly 300 million students globally at the beginning of March has increased to 776 million students until mid-March.
As Covid-19 continues to spread and especially after Nepal was declared a ‘high-risk zone’ by the World Health Organization (WHO), up until yesterday, parents were demanding that schools close down while the government wanted to speed up the final exams for all grades up to nine by March 18. On March 18, the government ordered closure of schools, colleges, cinema halls, gyms, clubs, swimming pools, museums and gathering of more than 25 people until April 30. The decision, which earlier pushed for the continuation of Secondary Education Examination (SEE) from March 19 as per the academic calendar, was later changed and stated that SEE should be postponed until further notice.
Arguments for and against school closure
When anything unwanted starts occurring in a community or a neighbourhood, one of the many firsts that parents attempt to do is get their children away from getting entangled in the mess. Amidst the coronavirus outbreak, this is the only option left as unprecedented waves of schools are being ordered to shut down to slow the spread of the virus.
The postponement of SEE exams and school closures are in alignment with the parents who vouched for the safety of their children. However, a number of students who have registered for the examination are in a state of confusion. Further adding to this are the statements of government officials who claim that the virus is well controlled and cannot spread further in Nepal. Proper guidance and statements backed with enough research and justifications seem to be lacking.
In other parts of the world, the guidance in school closures has been publicly available from reliable sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a measure to drive down the transmission rates. CDC has recommended that there is a role that school closures can play, but it has to be analyzed through various factors. The many arguments for and against the school closures, such as those countries where schools have been closed (Hong Kong) have not had more success in impacting the epi curve of covid-19 than those where schools have not been closed (Singapore), have been brought upfront. On the one hand, some believe that school closure for a short term (2 weeks) allows time for further understanding of the community spread of the covid-19 situation and gives time for potentially exposed individuals to develop symptoms while not in school. On the other hand, there are contrasting arguments where people believe that social distancing may not be possible especially among older students as social mixing might still occur outside the school where the ability to monitor is even lesser, and which will further increase the risk to older adults.
As for longer time periods of school closures (8-20 weeks), some level of impact on decreasing the spread of the virus seems possible but hand-washing and home isolation has more impact on both the disease spread and health care measures.
All of the arguments depending on varying weeks of school closure are rationale for a time full of uncertainties to explore varying opinions and rhetoric. Schools worldwide are definitely in a state of distress and are thinking of ways of going digital. I am a strong believer in accelerating education revolution and liberalizing education. I am a proponent of digital schooling too. However, the looming question for me is while there are growing evidences of the adoption of connecting education and technology in the form of ‘online classes’, which is a synonym to the digital age, the level of its practicality in low-income countries is as alarming as it is encouraging.
Academic infrastructure and service provisions might be lacking in some families while they may be present in some. This should not give rise to another set of problems where the learning curve is disrupted among students of the same grade, further impacting their academic and personal well-being.
The difference that I see here in regards to the school closures is that every statement for and against school closures or even new ways of providing education are being carefully explained and well-reasoned. In Nepal, the case is contrasting.
Points for further consideration
Given the state of public schools and some lower-grade private schools in Nepal, where the state of hygiene and sanitation is worrisome, it is obvious for parents to feel concerned and demand school closures. For this, a short-term closure considering the growing cases can be a good decision.
However, the short term closure should also be utilized by the schools wisely to analyze how the school can be immunized, how the spread rate results are, how vulnerable the students are, how it is impacting their overall academic calendar, their learning as well as physical and mental well-being, and what steps can be further taken when the school reopens to contain the spread.
Further, the local municipalities and the state agencies have to be constantly in communication to provide clear statements to the schools backed by justifications, so that schools can further circulate them to concerned parents and the cycle of communication doesn’t get disrupted. The ministries and departments of education can impart statements regarding the growing virus and disseminate information which is constantly updated because these steps can bring in reliability and credibility which are most needed during perplexing times. Informed judgment and consistent reliable communication has to be prioritized.
No matter the severity or the number of cases discovered in the country, the fact that coronavirus has been declared a pandemic is a serious concern and calls for leadership on the part of the state. How the story of education, the future of the students, the employees and every stakeholder unfolds depends on the kind of leadership enacted from this point forward.
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.