When students all over Pakistan’s most populous province Punjab came home from school on March 13, they probably couldn’t imagine that schools are going to be closed for months on end, and the entire mode of education is going to change drastically.
As Pakistan’s tally of covid-19 infected cases rose to 21 in March, the provincial governments implemented lockdowns, and the Federal Minister of Education announced the closure of all schools and educational institutions across the country till April 5 which was later extended to May 30 in Punjab.
As the economic effects of nationwide lockdown became evident, many citizens were left unemployed or financially insecure, and the question over paying school fees became a conundrum.
While government schools have minimal or no fees, private schools in Punjab can charge anywhere from less than Rs. 2,000 to more than Rs. 60,000 per month.
Acknowledging the economic challenges of parents who must pay school fees even during the pandemic, and the private schools that can’t run without fees altogether, the Punjab government came up with a middle-ground solution. Private schools were directed to offer a 20% discount on their fees and not charge cumulative fees for three months.
While private schools have been directed to maintain the reduced fees until they completely reopen, investigations by MIT Technology Review Pakistan suggest a contrary situation.
Punjab School Education Minister Murad Raas has encouraged parents to pay the fees with a 20% reduction. While most private schools implemented this, others not only pressured parents to pay fees, some only reduced the fees for April and May. Moreover, they implemented a system that would only allow students to get access to remote learning resources if they have paid their fees up to the month of July.
Many parents questioned this process, claiming that the schools do not have to spend on operational costs like water and electricity, which should also be adjusted in the fees.
Ms. Atia Rehman, principal of Allied School’s Tayyab campus says that change in school environments was sudden and unexpected. Schools had no time to prepare for it, which is why the private school sector has suffered a lot.
She maintains that fees in private schools are a big issue, because they cannot ensure quality remote education and safety measures without expenditure. The school she runs has around 300 students and is located in a rural area in Sheikhupura.
“Many students come from low-income families and have fee concessions. On average, a student enrolled in Allied School should pay a Rs. 3,200 fee. But many of our students can’t afford it, and they pay lesser amounts, as low as Rs. 2,000.”
Rehman clarifies that her school has implemented the 20% reduced fee, but they still need to pay the salaries of teachers and staff. In addition to that, there are other expenses like the provision of sanitizers, installing a handwashing station next to the gate, sanitizing the whole area, thermal guns, and more.
When the School Education Minister of Punjab directed private schools not to lay off staff members, and pay full salaries, many schools resorted to overburdening their teachers, who were already under pressure to perform well in remote learning situations – an entirely new medium for all stakeholders involved.
A teacher previously employed at Lahore Preschool, an upscale private establishment, complains that the school terminated the contract of 60 teachers including herself in April. She received a call that her contract had been terminated and when schools reopen, she will be notified whether it will be reinstated or not. She was given no specific reason for the termination.
“I wanted to take legal action because the government had notified schools not to fire teachers during the lockdown, I asked them for the termination notice in writing, but they refused to provide it.”
Other private schools refrained from terminating their employees and instead asked them to take training courses in order to prepare for online or remote learning.
Ms. Rehman recounts that this was one of the hardest tasks, especially while maintaining social distance, as the remote learning system had never been employed in the local educational system. In most private schools, these trainings were held online, while staff members were only called in on Mondays and Tuesdays for administrative tasks.
On the other hand, Mr. Sibt Ul Hassnain, an Assistant Education Officer (AEO) in the Mailsi District, Punjab says that as soon as school was closed, the Deputy Commissioner of his district called a meeting with all AEOs and the IT staff at schools, where everyone was trained about remote learning and introduced to online systems.
Online teaching material and access to lessons prepared for the Taleem Ghar TV channel was also granted to all government teachers. Using their login to the School Information System (SIS) application, teachers can easily use these lessons and also access other training materials.
As the growing number of coronavirus cases prompted reinstatement of smart lockdowns, it was announced that schools across Punjab would remain closed until July 15.
Many schools had already declared summer holidays in April and May. Schools then started implementing remote learning systems. All students in public and private schools throughout Punjab were promoted to the next class without final exams.
While the federal government launched a Teleschool channel where lessons for different grade levels are aired, the Punjab government also launched the Taleem Ghar TV channel, which airs lessons for most subjects on a daily basis. These lessons are also available to teachers through the SIS mobile application and YouTube. Textbooks were hand-delivered to students by teachers and other staff in government schools.
However, one major challenge is the availability of internet and cable television. The Taleem Ghar channel initiative has been successful only for a fraction of the students. Many schools resorted to teaching through WhatsApp groups, largely relative to the availability of devices and the internet.
Ahsan Javed, a public school teacher at Govt. MC Boys High School, Pakpattan says he has been communicating with his students through WhatsApp, but many of his students do not have devices or internet packages, as they belong to low-income families. “The response [to our audio lectures] is very low. But even if only four students are listening, we send them and answer any questions,” notes Javed.
He also points to the issue of motivation, saying that even if students have devices connected to the internet, interest plays an important role. “Their interest is below 50% even in a regular classroom. Right now, there is no accountability for their work or a conducive educational environment”.
Sibt Ul Hasnain, AEO of Mailsi West, says he has been visiting schools under his administration regularly to check whether remote learning resources have been reaching students at a grassroots level. A major obstacle has been the lack of cable television, as such facilities are not readily available to the rural folk in Mailsi.
According to Javed, government school students haven’t suffered as much as private school students. He says that in the government schools, teachers usually have to reteach the course before summer holidays anyway, and the government can set the examination dates accordingly.
A bigger concern is getting students to focus and gradually go back to the same continuity of education as before, when schools finally reopen.
On the flip side, private schools face their own share of challenges when it comes to remote learning. With decreasing attention spans, and changing lifestyles brought on by coronavirus, remote learning becomes more challenging.
Private schools have adapted varying strategies to cater to the socio-economic conditions of their students. Internet connectivity, and availability of devices, has not been an issue in upscale private schools, but it has been a recurrent predicament for schools that cater to low income strata or rural areas.
In many of these schools, the technology used in most urban schools like Google Classrooms and Zoom lessons has not been possible due to the unavailability of the internet.
“Many parents didn’t even know about Whatsapp groups and how they work,” explains Rehman, who organized individual meetings with many parents to inform them about WhatsApp.
For each school day, the teacher remains online in the WhatsApp group during class time and gives instructions to students through text, voice notes, or pre-recorded videos. The students send photos of their work in the group afterward.
Private schools, where students could afford internet connectivity and devices, are using Google Classroom and Zoom to deliver daily lessons to students through video calls, worksheets, and printed course packs sent to the students’ residence.
Assessment and accountability
In many public schools, teachers were asked to create worksheets that were then delivered to students’ houses or made available at schools. Students fill these worksheets out with each lesson and submit them to the school. From there, the teachers take the worksheets, mark them, and send pictures in WhatsApp groups or return them through the school.
To ensure that all students are being catered to and social distancing is being followed, schools in Mailsi West also made use of the Tiger Force volunteers. Experts point out that with all the changes that are happening in our lives, many factors in the educational system will change as well, like the way we take an assessment.
Instead of relying on rote learning and gauging the length of answers, students’ conceptual learning will be emphasized and tested. Most assessments will incorporate constructed responses and creative writing, where students have the opportunity to present their learning. They stressed that the teachers will have to be trained for such assessments as well.
The involvement of parents has been a recurring topic ever since schools were forced to shift toward remote learning. While it is a key factor in the education of a child in general, its importance has become paramount in times when teachers have limited access to the students staying at home. For many working parents, this has become another issue.
Javed says many parents in low-income areas are not concerned with the quality of education received by their children, because they are busy working and trying to put food on the table. He claims the only reason these parents send their children to school is so that they do not get spoiled.
“If they don’t go to school, they will keep wandering around every day and might get caught up in immoral activities”.
Sibtul Hasnain notes the difference between the parents of students who go to government schools and those who go to private schools. “[The former] are the responsibility of their teachers through and through.”
He says parents in private schools are more involved in the educational and everyday activities of their children. He underlines the government has done everything it could do to ensure that the education of these students is not disrupted, but in the end, the issues are the same.
Sibtul Hasnain feels disappointed because many parents do not take the education of their children seriously. “But perhaps it is not their fault as they are bound by financial limitations.”
Experts emphasize on the involvement of parents, and their cooperation with teachers along with school administration, for this system to work. They also underscore the importance of compliance with government guidelines and SOPs.
The transition to remote learning has been uneven and complicated for all stakeholders. If they unite their efforts under the aim of providing a well-rounded education to students, they can continue the academic year with minimal disruption, and bring long-term changes in the system.