By Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio
ISLAMABAD, Feb 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After a two-week winter break, school in Islamabad started as usual at the beginning of January – but Shumaila Nelofar's two children did not go.
With morning temperatures hovering just above freezing, their mother kept them at home rather than have them sit in unheated classrooms during a bone-chilling cold snap that gripped the capital for much of a month.
"How could I be so heartless to allow my children to go to school in the harsh cold?" she asked.
Her 10-year-old daughter Amina Khan said that heavy fog on the first of January also forced her and her sister to turn back to their home in Ghouri, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the Pakistani capital, during their walk to school.
"It looked like dense wet clouds had landed on the ground, with almost zero visibility in the morning," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation recently as she and her sister returned home from school with their classmates.
Schools in Pakistan normally reopen on Jan. 1, but this year many parents, particularly in central and northern Pakistan, have been reluctant to send their children as temperatures remain unusually low.
Some parents and teachers have urged the government to extend the normal two-week winter holiday to protect the health of both children and teachers – a measure some schools have already taken.
"Teaching in classrooms without heaters in such freezing cold weather compelled me and the most of my fellow teachers to refuse to attend school," said Naila Khan, a biology teacher at a government girls' school in the capital's upscale F-6 sector.
"Many schools like ours are without heaters to keep the classrooms warm, and even if there are heaters, they're good for nothing because of extended gas and electricity outages," she said.
Part of the problem, she said, is that the two-week school winter break is aimed to fall on the coldest days of the year – but this year the colder period has come much later, as weather grows more unpredictable across Pakistan as a result of climate change.
HOTTER, LONGER SUMMERS
Schools are experiencing similar problems at the other end of the year as well. Weather that is too hot for students and teachers to focus on their work now often extends beyond the usual June and July summer break.
Last year, schools were supposed to reopen on August 1 after a two-month break, but the government extended the holiday until mid-August, following temperature highs of between 35 and 41 degrees Celsius (95 to 106 degrees Farenheit) in all but the mountainous northern areas.
Scientists at the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) say that each successive summer since 2010 has been the hottest recorded in the country, with increasingly frequent and intense heatwaves.
At the same time, cold winter days have begun later each year for about the last six years.
Ghulam Rasul, head of the PMD and the permanent representative of Pakistan with the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization, said significant natural variation was to be expected from year to year in the onset of winter and summer and in terms of temperature extremes.
But he added that a shift in the seasons of at least 15 days had been observed over the past 20 years, meaning that summer was beginning earlier and winter later than average.
He urged school officials to adapt school schedules to the new reality.
"Considering the highly erratic weather patterns, it would be a saner approach to adapt annual academic vacation schedules to the shifting seasonal patterns," he said.
He suggested extending holiday leave periods by about two weeks to allow a "cushion" for more intense temperature extremes.
Summer school holidays in Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan provinces already have been extended each year since 2010 on account of the seasonal changes.
As well as the extension to August 14 last year, holidays were prolonged in most of the country until August 11 in 2015 and August 30 in 2014.
Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, a climate change specialist at the Asian Development Bank and lead author of Pakistan's national climate change policy, said the coldest days now fall in late January instead of late December.
In addition to very hot Augusts, heatwaves – which were once rare even in June and July – now occur as early as May, he added.
"The 15-day annual winter school vacation needs to be advanced by 7–10 days," Chaudhry suggested, while the summer holidays should begin 10–15 days later and could be expanded to last two weeks longer.
Jam Mehtab Hussain Dahar, the education minister of Sindh province, said that his department was considering adjusting the onset of winter and summer holidays to the weather each year, a measure that found support from Rana Mashhood Ahmed, Punjab's education minister.
"We are planning to keep the school vacations schedule flexible to adjust with the shifting extreme winter and summer days," Ahmed said in a telephone interview.
(Reporting by Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)