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School Reopening: Managing Risks in the Covid-19 Era

You can download the full version of this COVID-19 Response Deck here.

Executive Summary

Since the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, school closures have disrupted vital aspects of the economic and social ecosystem in nearly every country. As the pandemic enters its sixth month, school reopening is increasingly inevitable across the globe.

School reopening is being necessitated by three key pressure points: first, the massive learning loss estimated to be accumulating in terms of student cognition, second, the substantial losses and bankruptcies being that are accruing to private schools, especially low-cost private schools in the developing world, and third, the threat of continued vulnerability of children outside the school environment, either to exploitation as child labour or to other forms of domestic abuse.

No education system will be able to reopen schools flawlessly. Indeed, global experience indicates that in most countries, school reopening will be followed by a subsequent closure of schools. In Pakistan’s case, there is the added complexity of multiple school systems both within and beyond the public sector. As schools reopen in countries around the world, policymakers, parents, and teachers should be conscious and aware of four defining realities that will shape their experience:

Uncertainty: the world is doing this for the first time – from public schools, private schools, and madrassahs in Pakistan to schools in Western Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. Both the spread and containment of Covid-19 have behaved differently in different places at the same time, and at different times in the same places. No one is certain about the true risks of reopening.

Preparedness: no matter how well prepared, schools are places of contained and organized chaos and energy. School administrators, teachers, and families of students need to see each other as partners in helping prepare for school reopening, and understand that the risk of infections is not going to be eliminated by good preparation.

Localization: state, provincial and national governments bear responsibility for top-level decisions, but the execution of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and the responsiveness to uncertainty is a local function. In countries with low capacity at the local level, the need for robust communication and cooperation especially across all levels will be vital.

Funding: Covid-19 represents an unprecedented economic disruption and there will not be enough resources for all schools and all classrooms to be equally safe. Policymakers need to make informed and well reasoned judgements about how they will prioritize. Countries will need to prepare school administrators, teachers, families, and citizens at large for a decision making regime in which hard choices may have to be made.

The least disruptive and traumatic school reopening experiences will be those that are able to:

1.collect, collate and analyse daily data from classrooms, and generate key decision-informing insights for policymakers

2.respond to new Covid-19 outbreaks with contained and measured actions, including selective reclosures, aggressive contact tracing, case tracking, and Covid-19 testing

3.effectively communicate both success and failure, as well as changes to SOPs at the local, sub-national (provincial or state) and national level in a timely manner


Analysis: Ali Ansari, Mosharraf Zaidi, Nadya Karim-Shaw, Umar Nadeem

Research: Aliza Amin, Danyal Haroon, Durreshahwar Ali

Design: Sidra Reza


Ali Ansari is a PhD Gates Cambridge scholar at the faculty of Education. Ali has over a decade of experience in education programme design, implementation and evaluation. His research interests include the economics of education, school effectiveness and the privatization of education.

Mosharraf Zaidi is a Senior Fellow at Tabadlab. He has over two decades of advisory experience in public policy in complex political environments. He writes a weekly column for The News International, a fortnightly column the Arab News, and hosts the How to Pakistan podcast.

Nadya KarimShaw is the Portfolio Manager for Pakistan’s Girls’ Education Challenge grants and formerly the Country Representative for World Learning in Pakistan. She has over two decades of experience across technology and international development sectors where she led large scale multi-year programmes in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Umar Nadeem is a Fellow and Head of Thought Leadership at Tabadlab. His experience spans 15 years of engagements with governments, multilateral organizations and corporations in Asia, Europe and Africa with a focus on governance, service delivery, digital transformation and innovation. Umar holds a Master of Public Policy from the University of Oxford.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Tabadlab Pvt. Ltd.

All rights reserved. You cannot quote or reproduce any content in this document without express written permission of Tabadlab (Pvt) Ltd.


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Umar Nadeem is the Head of Advisory at Tabadlab. He works at the intersection of evidence, technology and policy with experience in policy analysis, design and management of large-scale programmes and digital transformations, and has led multi-disciplinary portfolios advising governments and corporations in Asia, Europe and Africa. Umar holds a Master of Public Policy (MPP) from the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.