The Health Ministry's recommendation to close schools for a month in big cities has already caused anxiety in working parents

The Ministry of Health and Population has recommended for the closure of schools in the big cities for at least a month in the wake of the sudden surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, but the other stakeholders, namely the private school operators and guardians, are divided on the issue. The government faces a dilemma as it has the onus of protecting the health of the children and the teachers, but a closure of schools will badly affect both the teaching-learning process as well as the school academic calendar, which has already been pushed back.

Hence, it has yet to take an official decision on the issue, although this gives ample time for the schools to prepare for such an eventuality. Shutting down schools will mean a return to online classes as in the past, which have proved to be not effective at all. Not everyone, even in an urban setting, can afford the expensive gadgets, such as a laptop, a tablet or mobile, not to speak of an internet connection. And what if there is more than one child in a family? Of grave concern to the government is the fast spread of new variants of the coronavirus among the people, with double the number of youths below 21 years getting infected this year compared to the past year. Since children below 18 years cannot be vaccinated against the virus, the government sees no option other than to suspend physical classes in the schools for a while until the situation becomes more manageable. This will take about 800,000 students out of school in the Kathmandu Valley alone, which should greatly reduce people's movement.

What is scary is the government's prediction, based on current COV- ID-19 infections, that the country could witness more than 11,000 cases a day – from roughly 450 infections today – with the caseload reaching 600,000 in another three months. Thus, the government will have no option other than to clampdown another lockdown, as it did last year, regardless of its extreme unpopularity among businesses and the people alike.

While all parents are concerned about the health of their children, selective shutdown of sectors creates problems of its own. The recommendation of the Health Ministry has already caused anxiety in working parents, who can neither quit work – certainly not for a month – nor leave their children alone at home. Therefore, all the stakeholders, including the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology and private school operators must decide on a workable solution acceptable to all. The government's indecisiveness is also causing confusion among class 10 students as to whether the Secondary Education Examination (SEE) will be held in the last week of May as scheduled as schools have yet to complete the courses of study. There is no guarantee that COV- ID-19 will be subdued by the closure of schools for a month. If it doesn't, then what? If the coronavirus is there to stay for a long time to come, then we might need to think of new methods of imparting education to the students, ways that are affordable while keeping them safe from the virus. Students have already lost one good academic year sitting home, gaining little from the virtual classes. We cannot allow that to repeat.

Ineffective scheme

The much-touted Prime Minister Employment Programme (PMEP) has been ineffective in providing 100 days of work opportunity to the unemployed people in a year, according to the annual report of the fiscal year 2019-20. The programme was aimed at providing work for a minimum of 100 days to 60,000 unemployed persons across the country.

But it only managed to ensure employment of only 16 days on average to 106,365 people. A total of Rs 5.01 billion had been allocated for it from government resources.

A total of 270,734 persons had applied at the local level for enlistment, seeking a minimum of 100 days of work. However, only less than half of the total applicants found jobs, that too, only for 16 days. The main question here is, why has the programme, which was supposed to be executed by the local levels, failed to offer jobs to the unemployed people who need them the most? Although the report has attributed the failure of the PMEP to the coronavirus pandemic, it was designed without doing any adequate homework. Instead of wasting tax-payers' money on the unfeasible PMEP, the government should find ways of creating jobs round-the-year.

A version of this article appears in the print on April 15, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.