ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Fear is gripping Pakistan's parents amid threats and rumors that terrorists were set to launch more attacks on the nation's schools and colleges.
"I can't tell you my feelings and those of my wife when we see off our children to school in the morning," said Haq Nawaz Khan, a father of four from Peshawar, the capital of militant-ridden Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. "It has made me and my wife psychologically sick."
Khan, a 45-year-old journalist, said it had become difficult to concentrate at work while his three boys and one girl were in school, and so decided to keep them home.
On Wednesday, officials in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province announced that all 64,000 institutions that usually educate more than 3 million children and young adults would be closed until Feb. 1. The move followed a Jan. 20 terror attack at Bacha Khan University in the province that left 21 dead.
The alleged mastermind of the Bacha Khan University siege, Khalifa Omar Mansour, the head of the Pakistani Taliban's (TTP) military wing, promised more strikes on schools across Pakistan. Mansour, who is thought to have been behind the massacre on a Peshawar school on Dec. 16, 2014, that left close to 150 children dead, took responsibly for the siege on Bacha Khan University.
In a video released on Jan. 22, Mansour promised that the "attacks will not stop."
Fears that terrorists could strike anywhere and not just in restive northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa spread and grew during last week.
"It's horrific to think that anybody could have a motive to hurt our children and scare all the parents," said 33-year-old mother-of-two Sama Alam in Islamabad. "I am so scared, and at this point security comes first because life is more important than education."
She was one of many parents who kept their kids out of school even before hundreds reportedly began to close their doors.
There are 53 million school-age kids in Pakistan, although only 27 million regularly attend school, according to Mosharraf Zaidi, the campaign director at Alif Ailan, an education activist NGO.
While Pakistan's central government would not make any official statement regarding threats to schoolchildren, there were reports that hundreds of public and private schools and colleges were being closed throughout the country during the week.
By Friday, at least 230 public and private schools and colleges in Punjab alone had been shuttered, reported the country's leading newspaper Dawn, citing unnamed police and security officials.
A principal at one school in the capital of Islamabad sent a note to parents on the WhatsApp messaging service to announce his school would be closed on Thursday.
"Due to the recent media speculations on the status of schools open or shut in Islamabad Capital Territory and the ensuing panic amongst parents and our staff, we have decided to shut down our school," said the principal, who shared the message with NBC News on condition of anonymity because he did not want the publicity.
While not confirming the mass school closures, government officials have criticized them.
"We should give a message of strength and unity and fight against the atmosphere of fear ant terror," Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan told journalists at a press conference in Islamabad on Thursday. "Security can be improved while schools are still on."
"There are hundreds of thousands of schools in Pakistan — securing each is a difficult job but it must be done," he said.
He said he had requested schools stay open.
"If we close all our educational institutions, hospitals, streets, neighborhoods and hide ourselves in our houses — this is what the terrorists want," he said.
Alam, the mother in Islamabad, disagreed.
"It is better the schools shut down because no amount of security will stop these people if they have made up their mind to attack," she said.