Fatematuz Zohra is a ninth-grader at Angelica International School at Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka. Despite considerable reluctance, Zohra's parents bought their daughter a smartphone last year to enable her to attend virtual classes. The government had shuttered schools due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
"The virtual classes were four to five hours a day, and those were good at the beginning," said Zohra. "As the school closure prolonged, the number of classes started to get reduced.
The teachers were not sincere either. They would give us a few assignments and then end the classes after just 20-25 minutes."
Zohra's parents were disappointed too over the schooling since they had had to buy their daughter a brand-new phone and had been bearing Internet costs per month. The latest update is that Zohra's online classes are completely closed as the school said it is no longer able to pay its teachers.
This grim picture of distance education is not unique. It is rather an image of the overall weakening virtual learning system around the country.
Already beset with poor access to digital devices and the Internet, virtual classes have been struggling to continue schooling since the very beginning of the closure of education institutions last year.
The issue did not ease up, but has instead intensified one-and-a-half-year into the pandemic. At the same time, classes have continuously been losing students as neither pupils nor teachers can rely any more on the alternative to face-to-face classes.
Schools in Bangladesh's north-eastern district Brahmanbaria have been conducting online classes since educational institutions were ordered closed last year. But teachers have said that student turnout has been in free fall.
"The current student turnout is too low," said Mahbubur Rahman, assistant district primary education officer. "It is difficult to take classes with only four or five students. So, there are instructions to take classes with as many students as there are at four or five schools."
Rahman said the schools are taking classes through Google Meet, which requires a smartphone and Internet connection. But it is not available to many of the students living in rural areas.
He said teachers are now reaching out to students at their homes with weekly worksheets.
In the face of a growing crisis and financial issues, many schools have already shuttered, leaving their students in limbo.
According Noakhali district education officer Saidul Islam, 60% of the 1,253 primary schools are conducting online classes in the southeastern district. Around 40% of students in remote Char areas (riverine areas) remain out of the classes as they do not have smartphones and high-speed Internet.
A number of Noakhali teachers said they go to school once a week. Many of their colleagues do not go to their workplaces even once a month, and do not take online classes either.
Saidul said the education authorities are distributing hand-notes among the students.
At nine upazilas in Pabna, 352 public and private primary schools had a moderate student turnout until last year, but the number of students in virtual classes has been gradually declining, and now stands at almost zero.
"Online classes come with numerous issues. I could not attend the classes often as I did not have a mobile phone during school hours. Sometimes I had a phone, but the Internet was down," said Atiqur Rahman Raja, a Secondary School Certificate (SSC) examinee in Pabna.
On condition of anonymity, a primary school teacher in Sylhet said a teachers' meeting distributed the classes among teachers in turns last year.
"But the reality is most of the teachers do not have any logistic support at home to take the classes. Internet speed is slow and power cuts are frequent. Moreover, just two to four children show up for the classes," said the teacher.
Jahangir Kabir Ahmed, deputy director of Sylhet secondary education, said they cannot get tough against the schools for not taking virtual classes since the government did not provide any support.
"I can only encourage them [the schools]," he commented.
Many guardians are critical of the output of the virtual classes as they say neither students nor teachers are attentive to the alternative schooling method.
"My son is a second grader. He is not interested in doing online classes," Arshadul Islam, a guardian in Brahmanbaria, told The Business Standard.
"I don't think distance education can develop the talents of pupils properly," he added.
A number of guardians said they themselves are suffering from depression, and the pandemic is a kind of disaster for everyone. They raised the question of how long it will be possible to depend on virtual classes by sort of putting pressure on the children.
Besides, they pointed to the frequent power outages and issues of a slow Internet.
"My child is an SSC candidate this year. The school stopped taking tuition fees and online classes in February this year as the academic year was over. I am very worried about the future of the kid," Ayesha Akhter, another guardian, told TBS.
According to the Directorate of Secondary & Higher Education Cumilla, the district has 115 colleges, 46 schools and colleges, 608 secondary schools and 384 madrasas. Last May, 31,185 online classes were held at secondary level and 3,660 classes at higher secondary level.
Professor Somesh Kar Chowdhury, director at the Directorate of Secondary & Higher Education Cumilla, said through collecting data on classes from teachers and guardians, the directorate has been updating the central office every month.
But the information schools feed the district education directorate are not completely correct.
A number of schools and colleges in Cumilla rural areas said they still do not know how to take classes on virtual platforms. The educational institutions video-record the classes, and upload the footage on Facebook.
These video-recorded lectures – with no interactive features and an unknown number of students watching – are being counted as online classes too.