Knowledge is power: Handling the COVID-19 pandemic in schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan

By Bushra Rahim, who is currently working for the Government of Pakistan. She is a Fulbright scholar, AusAid alumna, and a Charles Wallace Fellow. She serves as a President Association of Business, Professional & Agriculture Women; Executive Director Development Agent for Change (DAC)- a non for profit philanthropic organization- and is the President Fulbright Alumni Association KP.

Like most countries in the world, Pakistan closed its schools and universities to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus and sought ways to address the resulting loss of learning. Even without a pandemic, however, a large population of children and youth are unable to access school in many parts of Pakistan. In the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where I work, official statistics estimate that one million children are out of school. Among the many initiatives seeking to enroll these children in schools, two free primary schools named Ujala (or “light”) have been established in Peshawar by our non-profit charitable organization, Association of Business, Professional and Agricultural Women, KP.


These schools run according to two different models, which draw on the work of comparative education scholars, background papers for EFA GMR, policy frameworks, local community needs and supply and demand-side factors. In the first model, popularly known as double-shift school, afternoon school, or half-day school, students are taught for three hours in the afternoon by one paid female teacher and two volunteer members.  The second model involves collaboration between the charitable organization and a low-cost private school.

The ratio of girls and boys in these schools is 43% and 57%, respectively. In contrast with average rates across the country, their dropout rate is very low. Among the major reasons behind boys’ dropout are a lack of interest in education and the need to support family income. Domestic chores, family and, transportation issues are among those behind girls’ dropout.

To foster their enrollment and permanence in education, our organization takes various measures. For example, free uniforms and shoes are provided once or twice a year. Food aid /Ramadan packages and Eid gifts are also distributed as an incentive to the students’ families.  In addition, health awareness campaigns are arranged to keep students healthy and active. Moreover, to maintain good oral hygiene, visits to dentists are organized. Financial support is provided to children interested in attending school, but unable to pay tuition fees and purchase stationery, to enable them to enroll in the low-cost private school. The contribution of our NGO to the cost of teacher salaries, textbooks, stationery, uniforms, food, has a positive side effect as it motivates children, especially girls, to enroll and remain in school and enables them to eat healthy meals.\

Handling Covid-19 in Ujala Schools

During the COVID-19 outbreak, the Ujala Schools, like all other schools, were closed. Many of the children they served were found roaming the streets without taking precautionary measures against the virus. Despite the government lockdown, they knocked on their teachers’ doors, asking for food and enquiring as to when their schools would reopen.

After holding discussions with colleagues and drawing on recent GEM Reports and blogs, it was decided to prioritize the health education of these children with brief, child-friendly sessions to demonstrate important hygiene practices. A 30-minute session, for a batch of 11 students (aged 3.5 – 8 years), took place to create awareness amongst them about the risks posed by the pandemic and how to protect themselves and their families. An offline book about germs and cleanliness titled ‘Hello! My name is Corona Virus’ was read aloud in Pashto. Adults demonstrated the correct way of sneezing, washing their hands, and using sanitizers to the children.

In addition to teaching better sanitation, pictures of the virus were drawn on a whiteboard, and children were asked how they feel about it. Almost all children said that they felt sad. This approach of talking about emotions was new for female teachers and volunteers. But they were reassured as the approach would help improve students’ emotional literacy: understanding different emotions, the intensity of emotions, identifying, expressing, and coping with emotions.  These are important skills: Curriculum experts, cognitive psychologists and, education scientists believe that when students experience strong negative emotions, their ability to concentrate and solve a problem is severely impaired. In contrast,  positive emotions can facilitate learning and contribute to academic achievement.

The way the schools were run changed too. The children were asked to keep a distance of six feet as per the government’s guidelines, applied. Breathing exercises were carried out to demonstrate how to check the symptoms through this breathing exercise. The session was attended by teachers and volunteers who are currently replicating it in their communities.

After a few days, another session was carried out by two volunteers, one from Afghanistan and another from a religious minority from the slums in Peshawar in Persian and Urdu language, respectively. More such sessions will take place in the coming days. We aim to make these exercises a part of the regular teaching and learning process and to carry out practical exercises at least twice a month.

Oxfam Pakistan generously provided hygiene items (masks, soaps and sanitizers) for the schools along with food packets for the students’ families. Students’ mothers, grandmothers, and fathers were invited to the schools and shown how to wash hands properly. They appreciated the initiative and informed that such measures had not been taken by any other school around. Noticing students’ interest in this new way of teaching, we are planning to arrange audio-visual aids and internet connectivity for the school to teach social, emotional, and critical thinking skills so as to enhance student learning.

Child psychologists use a tool “Name it to tame it“, for naming and identifying fears, to reduce their impact. We believe that teaching about the virus using reputable sources and helping children in Peshawar pass on that information to their families and friends will help reduce the spread of the pandemic.

The whole exercise was meticulously planned. We knew that these children’s parents are poor and uneducated or semiliterate, the children don’t have access to reliable child-friendly information and that they were more prone to the misinformation being spread around. After the awareness session, the children were informed that these are life-long lessons, which they will practice daily and that they will share the knowledge with their friends and family members.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Tell me, and I forget, teach me, and I may remember, involve me, and I learn”. By being involved, the students learn the art of good hygiene and will pass this learning to others, creating a ripple effect.


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