Md Zihad, an eighth grader, was doing well at school as he had nothing to worry about other than his studies. But after his father, a local garment worker, lost his job following the closure of the factory where he was employed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Zihad's family faced a severe financial crisis.
So Zihad started pulling rickshaw in the capital's Mohammadpur area. He is now supporting his four-member family. But this has come at a price, for he cannot continue his studies now as he cannot follow the classes being aired on Sangsad Television.
And Zihad is not the only victim of the situation. Like him, thousands of secondary level students may also have to end their studies and start working to support their families in the post-Covid-19 period.
Education experts apprehend a huge surge in the dropout rate at the secondary level, which can be prevented only by special measures on the part of the government.
But the Education Ministry is yet to take any initiative in this regard.
Professor Syed Golam Faruk, director general of the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education, told The Business Standard, "We are giving regular stipends to the students. We did not take any step considering the coronavirus situation."
"But we are highly alert about taking any immediate action to tackle the emergency situation," he added.
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics Report 2018, the dropout rate is 38 percent in secondary level education in the country.
A recent study by Campaign for Popular Education notes that children's engagement in income-generating and household work due to a slump in their family income will lead to an increased rate of school dropouts in Bangladesh once the coronavirus outbreak is over.
The research also found that absenteeism and irregular attendance in schools would increase in the post-pandemic period.
According to the Centre for Policy Dialogue, the country's national poverty rate rose from 24.3 percent in 2016 to 35 percent in 2020 due to the adverse impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam, a reputed educationist, told The Business Standard that the dropout rate would rise to at least 70 percent from the existing 38 percent if the coronavirus crisis prevailed for a longer period.
"We always see the government's negligence in the education sector as the budget is not satisfactory. Quality education and education for all are impossible without a handsome allocation for the sector," he added.
"I have asked the government to prepare a database to identify the poor and coronavirus-affected people with the help of teachers and NGOs. But the government has taken no such initiative yet," he said.
Syed Manzoorul Islam called for Tk500 to be given to each poor student per month along with some stimulus package for teachers.
He was of the opinion that the government could provide each student with a laptop with financial help from private companies.
"The situation will worsen even more if the government does not take initiatives immediately," he warned.
The Education Ministry gives stipends of Tk150 on an average per month to 10 percent of boy students and 30 percent of girl students.
There are about 2 crore students at the secondary and higher secondary levels throughout the country.
The number of needy students is about 80 percent in rural areas, according to some teachers.
Rasheda K Chowdhury, executive director of Campaign for Popular Education, told The Business Standard that there was no alternative to adopting special measurers to recover the academic losses sustained in the education sector.
A two-year plan (2020-21) at the minimum must be adopted to deal with the disruption in the academic calendar. This may include plans for completing lessons, adjusting exams, adjusting vacations and support for learners, she said.
Manzoor Ahmed, Professor Emeritus at Brac University, told The Business Standard, "We had proposed that the government allocate at least Tk5,000 crore towards preventive measures so that no student dropped out due to the coronavirus impact. But the government did not do it."
"The dropout rate will rise due to early marriage and child labour. The pandemic will force it," he said.
Meanwhile, many students, especially those in rural, hilly and char areas, are not able to take part in online classes and studies. They are likely to start some jobs instead of continuing with their studies.
A head teacher from Bhola, wishing anonymity, told this correspondent that it would be tough for the teaching community to prevent students from dropping out after the pandemic.
"Many male students have started working, while many girl students have got married. Guardians do not want to bear any more burden," he said.
According to a study by the Institute of Governance and Development, study hours of primary and secondary-level students have declined by 80 percent since educational institutions were ordered closed amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
"There has been a significant reduction in students' total study time — from 10 hours to merely 2 hours a day. This is alarming," noted the report.
The non-government research organisation Sanem estimates, based on the latest Household Income Expenditure Survey, that before the crisis engendered by the pandemic 23.90 per cent (or 8.4 million) of students' families were below the poverty line.
Against the backdrop of a three-month lockdown since March 25, and a 25 percent fall in annual per capita income, Sanem found that as many as 43.90 percent of students' families could slip below the poverty line.