Despite all the odds and uncertainties, a part of the national education system, the one run by private schools, has been able to operate for a large part of the pandemic while the vast majority of public schools have struggled since the beginning.
With infections rising throughout the country, it’s not easy to forecast an “end of the tunnel” but very probably it will take at least six more months to have widely available vaccines.
The second wave in Europe is certainly not encouraging and only very strong protocols, hardly implementable at massive scales in a country like Nepal, can be effective in controlling the spread of the virus while managing to have a semi-normal life that also includes classroom based learning.
What will be the future of the education sector in Nepal in six months from now?
Many questions remain unanswered but all go down to make some difficult calls.
Will online education be the only doable way of imparting education or will other options be available, allowing also a scaled back return to classroom-based learning?
What about the situation of community-managed schools that have, on average, considerably inferior infrastructure than their private counterparts and whose students come from less affluent families unable to provide the indispensible tools for online learning?
In case of a limited return to classroom, which procedures will be in place to ensure the safety of our students, teachers, and staff?
Considering the risks, will teachers be ready to choose between their health and livelihood?
Last but not least, what did we learn in the last six months?
There are many discussions happening as to how the schools should operate and how new safety and preventive measures will have to be enforced, and their impact on the learning process.
UNICEF is working together with governments and schools to keep children learning, and not just reopen schools but make sure schools reopen in a better way.
The federal government and the provincial counterparts have been hard-pressed to ensure that all schools, not only the privately run, are able to continue in their mission of educating the children of the nation.
Here are a few key suggestions to slowly open school nationally in a phase wise manner:
First of all for those able to do so, online learning might be the only option available.
This will require fully understanding the working conditions of teachers that were overwhelmed by the very unique circumstances of finding themselves at home while teaching.
The situation was even more demanding for female teachers who have to complete all the household duties, look after the children, cater to the in-laws and sit down with a smile for the online classes.
The truth is that the society we live in is still very unfair to women and too many expectations are tossed at them. Female teachers should be admired and recognized for bravely coping professionally and responsibly with all the responsibilities imposed on them.
Therefore for those schools able to run online classrooms, some sort of guaranteed balancing acts should be ensured so that teachers won’t feel overwhelmed and lonely again.
On the other hand, we doubt the government will be able to provide massive numbers of computers, indispensible for online classes, to less affluent families that happen to enroll their children in community schools.
In such circumstances, we might have to think creatively with limited in-person classroom hours, mixing them with alternative forms of studying.
Wherever possible, junior school should avail of non-traditional, outside classroom learning and could come to schools only on weekends with their parents.
Other students could come alternately for only three days a week to school and this is aligned with the overall efforts of the government to minimize the working days from the normal 190 teaching days to whatever remaining days are available.
To offset the reduction in in-person teaching, local youths, after receiving appropriate trainings, could be mobilized as they can volunteer and run support classes in smaller groups either by visiting children in their homes or by arranging “one-stop temporary learning” outposts in the communities.
Harnessing on the power of youth clubs, for example, can really help teachers, especially those from community schools, to better provide meaningful learning outcomes as their duties will be shared with others.
For all schools running their own transportation services and willing to experiment a mix of in-person and online learning, special provisions should be applied, not only through continuous and exhaustive disinfection of the vehicles but also in terms of seating arrangements with adequate distances.
This means that a less number of children will be able to travel on the same vehicle.
Yet, with students attending classroom not as regularly as before, any concerns in terms of more pollution and traffic havoc being created by more buses’ runs, will be offset because of less students being in the school premises at the same time.
Whenever students will access to face-to-face classrooms, special provisions must be put in place.
Mask must be made compulsory for all stakeholders in school and temperature check must be made mandatory for students together with hand sanitizers points at school entry and strong protocols for monitored hand-washing at regular time intervals.
This aspect of basic sanitation, often a weak point in many community schools, must be fixed and it is fair to demand local governments across the country to ensure reliable water supplies for all these schools.
In addition, the number of students in the classrooms should be drastically reduced as the average of over 30 students for one classroom constitutes a serious health hazard.
In certain circumstances, face-to-face classes should be allowed only for the senior school maintaining physical distancing as they would be careful and responsible with themselves and their peers.
It will be hard to make prioritizations on who will have more access to in-person learning but common sense and practical considerations should guide the stakeholders in their decision making.
So despite all these odds, the “Learning Show” has to go on and we better be prepared.
Teachers should be considered, to some extent, as equals to many other essential workers providing indispensible services nowadays.
Though they did not take a Hippocratic oath, their contributions during these trying times have been invaluable and deserves recognition.
We are aware that the solutions proposed here have their own shortcomings and won’t fully address all the concerns from the stakeholders.
We need to make sure that not only students enrolled in private education institutions are able to enjoy their rights to learning but also try our best to come up with innovative solutions that will allow the highest number of students, especially those from community schools, to fulfill their rights safely too.
Will everything work out perfectly?
Will stakeholders be willing to make some trade-offs in the process?
Genuine goodwill and determination will only help answer these questions and unlock the difficult conundrum on how to ensure learning of the future generations won’t be any more hampered by a virus.
(Chandrayan P. Shrestha is the Principal of Malpi International School and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Simone Galimberti is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE and can be reached at email@example.com)