An Oxford economist, Professor Simon Wren-Lewis, in a study released in March last year estimated that school closures lasting four weeks could cut three percent from the UK's GDP, costing the economy billions of pounds.
Economists Eric Hanushek of Stanford University and Ludger Woessmann of University of Munich in their study made public in September, 2020 claimed that Covid-19 school closure could cost the US economy $14 trillion or 1.5 percent of US future GDP.
They evaluated the economic impact across a host of developed countries using existing research that suggests students in primary and secondary will experience a three percent lower income over their lifetimes because of the pandemic, translating to an average of 1.5 percent lower annual GDP for the remainder of the century – on the low end of the possible ramifications.
With a learning loss equivalent to one-third of a year of schooling estimated to mean 1.5 percent lower GDP on average for the remainder of the century, the total cost would amount to 69 percent of current GDP for the typical country –a potentially unprecedented economic harm that will "ripple through the world's economies in ways that will be felt far into the future," they estimate.
There are more studies. Every estimation made by separate studies on economic damage caused by school closures are chilling.
Bangladesh's economy is not shielded from the damage induced by school closures since last March.
Now, think about the economic consequences for school closures in Bangladesh for around a year since last March.
The empty classrooms not only hit education, it hit the economy. Industries estimate that businesses based on the academic activities of students have lost around Tk50,000 crore. This is just an iceberg of the impact. There is no estimation about future impact on the economy.
The pandemic has put the authorities in a tight corner to reopen around two lakh educational institutions allowing 4.5 crore students at a same time to return to in-person classrooms.
Educational poverty is no less critical than consumption poverty
The education minister, therefore, outlined plan for introduction of "class rationing" system: regular classes only for 10th and 12th graders, once a week for others. Education seems to have become scarce which requires the unprecedented rationing.
Yet, the good news is that students can return to classrooms in early February around after a year.
The reality on the ground requires some special measures to help students recover losses of academic learning, check drop out and reduce monstrous impact on the economy as experts across the world have been advocating for extraordinary efforts to address the crisis not seen in the past.
No in-person classes and examinations were held last year. The authorities were forced to promote students to next grades without any evaluation. There is no way to know who has learnt well and who has failed to make improvement in study last year. So, you don't know how the future workforce is being trained up.
Therefore, the to-do-list grew bigger as the makeshift arrangement did not work effectively during the school closures.
Campaign for Popular Education (Campe) in a recent survey found that 69 percent of primary and secondary students did not attend online classes – which were broadcast on Sangsad Television, radio, and other online platforms – during the Covid-19 pandemic last year.
Earlier, in a survey, Brac found that 56 percent of primary and secondary students did not attend online classes.
Also, 58 percent of students did not have the means to join online classes as they lacked necessary devices, according to the Campe survey which reflects the economic hardship of their families. The survey found that financial ability of students' parents to fulfill basic necessities of the families have declined to 29 percent from 73 percent.
Teachers are also facing an economic crisis. The Campe survey found that the financial ability of teachers to fulfil basic necessities for their families of teachers decreased to 67 percent from 93 percent.
The latest Sanem survey has also come up with almost similar findings regarding participation of online classes and economic hardship of the families of the students.
In view of former lead economist of the World Bank's Dhaka office Zahid Hussain, poverty ran deep not only in terms of consumption but also in terms of access to education.
Three-fourths of the students were deprived of online education amid the spread of infection.
"Educational poverty is no less critical than consumption poverty," Zahid said.
Take an example for a reality check.
Like other teachers, Nasim Mahmud and his colleagues of a non-government college in Pabna still do not know what additional works he will need to do after reopening of class rooms as there is no guideline for them.
"What we are now doing is dusting off the class rooms and rearranging seating to maintain social distance among students in the class rooms," he says.
But there is a problem, he says, they will face a shortage of teachers on almost every subject due to maintaining social distancing in classrooms.
His college has 135 students for the next Higher Secondary School Certificate exam. Before the pandemic, all students used to attend classes in a single room. Now, they are preparing three class rooms for them to ensure social distancing in line with the directives issued by the education ministry.
"We will need more teachers to run two additional class rooms for the examinees. But there is no scope yet for us to have fresh teachers," he notes, adding, "the situation may force us to ignore social distancing rules."
Moreover, he is not sure if all students can make a return to classrooms as many of their families are facing economic hardship.
The situation is no different for the high school in his locality.
The high school has over 1,500 students. "It's impossible to ensure social distancing after reopening of the high school due to shortage of teachers and spaces required for additional classrooms," he adds.
The coaching centre he along with a group of teachers used to run before the pandemic still remains shutdown resulting in losses of their additional earnings to support families.
Almost the same story will come out of many other educational institutions at primary and secondary level.
Shortage of teachers is a years' long problem in Bangladesh education sector.
In developed economies, there are 15 students for every teacher in primary education and 13 students per teacher in lower secondary education. In Bangladesh, the number of students is three to four times higher for a teacher.
The gap tells the necessity. Bangladesh needs more new teachers at least for primary and secondary schools that have been hit hardest to maintain social distancing rules and help weak students to recover from losses.
It requires new investment for recruitment of a large number of teachers and a master plan to recover the academic losses. It is not only for the sake of students, but also for the country's present and future economy. Moreover, today's students are the workforce of tomorrow's economy. If their growth is hampered, the economy will suffer. So, the future work force must be protected for the sake of the economy.
A mere reopening of schools cannot yield desired results: recovery of lost learning. Reform measures can pave the way for schools to return to better performance levels to prevent the economy from incurring in losses.
Min Sun, associate professor in education policy- University of Washington thinks rebuilding the school system should be regarded as an investment in upgrading the basic infrastructure of the economy.
"Investing in infrastructure has been a mantra of economic recovery for decades. While roads and bridges urgently need to be rebuilt, we should not overlook investments into schools, as our education system supplies the skilled labour necessary to drive the economic recovery," writes Min Sun.
So, the bottom line is simply clear as the economists Eric Hanushek of Stanford University, and Ludger Woessmann the University of Munich say "These [economic] losses will be permanent unless the schools return to better performance levels than those in 2019."
The writer is the Deputy Executive Editor of The Business Standard