The education and learning of about 15 lakh pre-primary students in private schools is feared to be disrupted as many kindergartens are facing permanent closures due to the financial crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Quality pre-primary education is a must to properly prepare children for the next stages of education, which equips them with the knowledge and talent a skilled nation requires. Failure to provide this education will have long-term consequences, say experts.
Considering the present situation, they say the government must plan with educationists, NGOs, and private educational institutions to find ways to make up students' learning losses and also cope with the post-pandemic situation.
Professor Emeritus at Brac University Dr Manzoor Ahmed said pre-primary education serves as a strong foundation for children.
"But ever since pre-primary education was launched in the country, its quality has not been satisfactory at all. Moreover, it has remained stopped since March last year although students of other tiers received online education. This has seriously hampered children's learning," he told The Business Standard.
He said the government had not yet planned how it would make up learning losses of pre-primary students.
"Government data show that the teacher-student ratio in pre-primary education in government primary schools is 1:30, but the actual ratio is higher. The maximum ratio should be 1:20," the professor added.
Kindergartens across the country have been the worst victims of the pandemic in the education sector. They have all been facing severe financial crises and cannot even pay their teachers.
With no way out of the problem until now, at least 2,000 elementary schools have been closed permanently. The number may rise to more than 10,000 if the government takes more time to reopen educational institutions, according to the Bangladesh Kindergarten Association.
Inspire School in the capital's Matikata had 150 pre-primary students before the government announced nationwide school closures in March last year. Since then, the pupils of the school had not received any education. The school authorities provided new books to only 25 students this year.
The rest are not in touch with the school as most guardians are reluctant to send their children to the institution. The school authorities said they would be compelled to shut down the institution permanently if they faced a student crisis round the year.
Like other countries of the world, Bangladesh introduced pre-primary education in 2013. All government and private primary schools now offer this education.
According to Unicef, quality pre-primary education sets a strong foundation for learning and helps make education systems more effective and efficient. It is also an effective strategy to promote economic growth.
Failure to provide quality early childhood education limits children's futures by denying them opportunities to reach their full potential. It also limits the futures of countries, robbing them of the human capital needed to reduce inequalities and promote peaceful, prosperous societies, Unicef said.
Kindergartens bearing the brunt of Covid-19
Iqra Ideal School in the capital's Rampura was doing well since it was established in 2001. But the pandemic hit it hard, resulting in its permanent closure.
All eight teachers of the school were then forced to change their profession. They are now trying to survive by working for different private companies.
The school authorities said they were not ready to face such an unusual situation. They did not have a rainy day fund and spent all their earnings on running the school.
As a result, they could not bear the expenses when the pandemic struck. Now, there is no possibility to restart the school.
Kamruzzaman, founder and head teacher of the school, told The Business Standard, "I lost Tk2 lakh in March and April last year. I then had to shut down the school permanently as the expenditure went beyond my capability."
At least 15% of private kindergarten teachers have already quit teaching while the rest have been going through miseries. Moreover, about 50% of teachers will be forced to change their profession if coronavirus lingers in the country.
There are one crore students and eight lakh teachers in more than 40,000 kindergartens in the country.
Mizanur Rahman Sarker, secretary general of Bangladesh Kindergarten Association, told The Business Standard, "Most of the schools were forced to close as they were not capable of continuing their operations. In fact, most of them waited till November last year, hoping that schools would reopen. But that did not happen, and they were unable to bear the expenses after that."
"It is very unfortunate that both school owners and teachers are now in a woeful condition, and many have already changed their profession. Also, many have turned their schools into grocery shops, laundries, and are operating other businesses as well."
Meanwhile, only 25% of kindergarten students from play to tenth grade received new books this year. Of them, the scenario of pre-primary students is dismal.
Ikbal Bahar Chowdhury, president of Bangladesh Kindergarten School and College Oikya Parishad, said, "The fresh student enrolment rate is very low in kindergartens. The fate of private schools and kindergarten teachers is getting increasingly uncertain."
"Kindergarten owners have invested more than Tk1,500 crore. A large amount of the investments will go down the drain if the pandemic persists."
No government help yet for private school teachers
The government recently allocated Tk46.63 crore for 81,000 non-monthly pay order (MPO) teachers and 25,000 employees of different educational institutions. Every teacher will get Tk5,000, and every employee Tk2,500, as a one-off payment.
But compared to the number of teachers, the amount is too meagre to be able to reduce their hardship, according to teachers.
Bangladesh Kindergarten School and College Oikya Parishad on 10 November last year urged the prime minister to reopen private educational institutions by maintaining health guidelines.
It also demanded financial assistance for teachers and school staff in the interest of their survival.
Professor Syed Golam Faruk, director general of the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education, told The Business Standard the education ministry has no plans to help private school teachers right now.
Professor Siddiqur Rahman, former director of the Institute of Education and Research at the University of Dhaka, said the government can provide soft loans, or loans with a 5% interest, to private educational institutions to help them continue their academic activities.