Zahra Hamidi was preparing to go back to her senior year of school in late March 2020 after the three-month winter break. Then COVID-19 swept through Kabul, and schools went into lockdown. At the end of the lockdown in the summer, COVID-19 was still spreading
and schools remained shut. And Hamidi, 20, was working as a tailor to help her family survive the pandemic, instead of distance learning.
Before the lockdown, Hamidi enjoyed family support for her education and was set to graduate from high school this year. But the lockdown left her father, a middle-aged manual laborer, in despair, as his daily income dried up. Hamidi and her young sister
set up shop as dress tailors working out of their home, taking over financial responsibility of the eight-member household. Within months, Hamidi became a full-time tailor instead of a senior high school student.
When public schools reopened in the fall, Hamidi was two weeks late in signing up for her class. She said she was sent to another class in vain. As she remains the breadwinner of her family, she faces long odds of returning to school and graduating. “My
mom says I should go school next year and graduate, but I am not sure what will happen then,” said Hamidi.
In Afghanistan, the COVID-19 response has hit education hard, which has had a disproportionate impact on vulnerable students like Hamidi. Nationwide school closures have added to the challenges already facing the country’s education sector, which
has struggled to meet the public’s high enthusiasm for education in recent years. Even as schools reopen, the long-criticized curriculum and textbooks remain an area of contention for the country.
“Afghanistan was already facing a learning crisis,” said Freshta Karim, founder of Charmaghz, a mobile library for children in Kabul. “The most vulnerable children – girls and child laborers –were at higher risk of dropping
out with schools closed for months.”
With the country’s academic year running between March and December, the national lockdown in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic dragged the winter break out into the summer. The education ministry promoted distance learning using radio
and TV stations, but as much as 70 percent of the population has no access to electricity.
To make things worse, the lockdown failed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Afghanistan returned to business as usual in May and June, even while COVID-19 infections and deaths surged across the country. The official count of COVID-19 cases
and deaths remained low, though, in part because of the low testing rate – the country had tested just 127,882 people as of November 12, and had reported 43,403 positive cases with 1,626 deaths as of November 16.
Even as the country reopened, schools remained closed for months. On August 22, the Education Ministry and Higher Education Ministry finally reopened universities and the senior and junior classes of public schools along with private schools. The Health
Ministry said that reopening educational institutions did not lead to a rise in COVID-19 cases, but public elementary and primary schools remained shut for another month.
“If the entire country remained locked down, school closures would make sense,” said Karim, who advocated for reopening schools. “This policy of reopen everything and shut schools did not work. As children of the policymakers study abroad
and/or attend private schools, it was hard for them to see the consequence of shutting schools.”
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