Tue. Mar 28th, 2023

COVID-19 and Online Home-based Schooling: Hopes and realities of the mountain communities of Gilgit-Baltistan

Sharifullah Baig
Senior Instructor
AKU-IED, Professional Development Center North

The bounce of the COVID-19 pandemic seized the operations of educational institutions in most of the countries, and online education emerged as the only ready-made solution to this crunch. The developed countries with robust and steady infrastructures rapidly moved to this mode of education, which was followed by an emulation effort by the developing states.  Gradually, the world community started to realize that this shifting of on-site to online education was not as simple as it was initially perceived, especially in the case of school education. Even the developed countries found it difficult to reach out and engage their vulnerable sections of the population: whereas, the developing nations faced additional challenges of infrastructure, design, and delivery and establishing a support mechanism for online school education. Popular ideas of “Double Role of Parents as Parent-teachers at Home” and “Role Reversals and Exchange of Roles between Parents and Teachers” for home-based schooling are being debated in the educational circles. Consequently, high premium is placed on the role of a parent as a “parent-teacher” for the success of home-based online system of school education. However, before emphasizing and banking on the double role of parents for child education at home, we need to understand the socio-economic, geographic and cultural dynamics of the parent communities in order to find contextually relevant and viable models of child learning during this pandemic situation.

The context of Gilgit-Baltistan Pakistan has a unique socio-economic, geographic and cultural conditions.  Here the parent communities have their own advantages and disadvantages that are navigating and governing their role as parents for child learning at home. The parent community of Gilgit-Baltistan can be categorized into three to four groups in terms of their socio-economic and geographic conditions.  The biggest group of parents in Gilgit-Baltistan are dwelling in remote village communities who are dependent on subsistent farming, busy in the mountain terraced small fields, orchards, cattle rearing and collecting basic needs for winter seasons. Most of these parents are having a low level of education or are illiterate, and their children have the only option of going to the public sector schools in their villages.

We have another working class in Gilgit-Baltistan which is partially and in some cases fully detached from the subsistent farming and is associated with the service industry and small-scale businesses. This class is mostly concentrated in the two cities of Gilgit and Skardu and small clusters in the district headquarters of each district in Gilgit-Baltistan. Majority of people in this group work as skilled and unskilled labors with low level of education and feeding extended families. Most of the children from this group are going to the public sector schools. Moreover, due to the absence of industry, the business is confined to trade, and small-scale shop keeping is dominating this business class. For the last two to three decades we have transformed an agrarian to the market economy in this region therefore, we are the first generation in business, and most of the people attached to this class have a low level of education. Children of this tiny business class are divided between the public sector and private sector schools depending on the level of family income. The working hours of these two groups are extended, ranging from 10 to 12 hours a day. Finally, we do have a small class of highly educated people attached with the service industry mostly works for different government departments and a small group in non-government development organizations in Gilgit-Baltistan. Most of the children from this group attend the private sector schools for their education.

Now, the popular ideas of “Double Role of Parents as Parent-teachers at Home” and “Role Reversals and Exchange of Roles between Parents and Teachers” for home-based schooling needs to be evaluated in the light of the above socio-economic and geographic milieu of the population in this region. The policymakers and the development organizations have to ask themselves some pertinent questions before launching a home-based online schooling in this mountain terrain. These questions can be: Is the parent community of Gilgit-Baltistan ready for this new role? Do they have the capacity and needed attitude for this role? Do we have a mechanism to reach out to each parent and support them to adopt this new role?   Keeping in view the ground realities of the parent community in Gilgit-Baltistan it is difficult to believe that the parent community is ready and has the capacity to shoulder the added responsibility of parent-teacher for the home-based schooling of their children.  Even our experiences of pre-COVID-19 shows that, for various reasons, parents were struggling to fulfill their normal responsibilities for child education. Therefore, the role of school is still vital in this context and the schools and systems need to take a lead role to find a way out of this crisis by establishing an academic contact with the families and children for their home-based learning. In this regard, a combination of online and on-site system rooted in schools as a hub of learning can be the most viable and reliable model for the remote village communities of Gilgit-Baltistan.

Ideally, we should have thoroughly evaluated our ground realities and explored the answers to these questions and planned ahead for an indigenous model of child learning for emergencies when COVID-19 was growing in China. However, now we are in the middle of the crisis therefore, the policymakers and stakeholders need to quickly find a way out of this situation by establishing an academic contact between the schools and the children to minimize the ever growing learning loss that we are suffering every day. The systems and schools needs to stand up and take control of the situation in their hands around their jurisdictions, and stakeholders need to respond by supporting systems and schools in their respective domains.

Last but not least, soon or later the schools are going to reopen, may it be with some standard operating procedures. Here we have time to devise a comprehensive plan of catch-up for the learning losses we suffered due to the closure of the schools. Once the children are back into the schools, half of the academic year will be lost: therefore, we need to have a plan and a viable implementation mechanism not only to cover the yearly syllabus, which is the easier part but also for the real learning in terms of holistic development. Therefore, the policymakers in education should cash in the opportunity of time and get a catch-up plan for learning loses before the reopening of the schools to avoid another ad hoc arrangement. However, the biggest challenge is that this all needs urgent attention.

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