Education is among the sectors hardest hit by the Covid-19 crisis, which warrants urgent and as well as pragmatic mitigation measures.
The pandemic has led to the closure of educational institutions across the country since March last year.
Classes are being conducted through online platforms, but a good number of children, especially those living in rural and hilly areas, are out of online education due to a shortage of digital devices and other expenses.
This has created a digital divide among students and many of them are facing learning losses. Pandemic-driven poverty has forced a great many school-going children into shouldering the responsibility of being breadwinners for their families. They are unlikely to return to school.
Many students are suffering from mental illness as they have entered a different environment due to the long closure of their educational institutions.
As a result, there are huge possibilities of dropouts and low enrolment from the pre-primary to the secondary levels of education, according to surveys by different private organisaitons.
But, unfortunately, there is no government research on learning losses and no initiative to address the achievement gap and keep school dropouts at bay.
In fact, the government does not agree on the predictions about high dropouts.
"We do not see any possibilities of dropouts," said Professor Dr Golam Faruk, director general of the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education. "We have observed that 91% secondary level students took part in assignments amid the pandemic, which is a satisfactory response."
Prof Dr Golam Faruk said the ministry firstly put emphasis on resuming classes. And that is why it had completed all preparations for reopening schools. "We are ready to support the schools if they face a financial crisis."
"We are going to train 300,000 teachers on mental health. They will look after their students after their training. We will also recruit one psychiatrist at each district who will also train the upazila level officials in this regard," he said.
"A good number of students might face malnutrition, which is why we have trained 100,000 teachers on how they can tackle the situation after the reopening of educational institutions," Prof Dr Golam Faruk said.
Professor Narayan Chandra Saha, chairman of the National Curriculum and Textbook Board, told TBS the curriculum authorities will prepare a short syllabus for this year to reduce learning burdens on students.
Even though the education ministry claims that it has taken adequate preparations to recover learning losses and keep all students on the right track, but education experts think it must do more and take fruitful initiatives to build the future generation to face the upcoming challenges.
They say the government should disburse one-time cash aid to schools across the country to help them get ready for reopening since rural institutions will not be able to resume classes by maintaining Covid-19 health guidelines due to a shortage of funds. They also ask the education ministry to adopt a two-year short plan to recover learning losses of students.
Dr Manzoor Ahmed, professor emeritus of Brac University, said many schools will need additional teaching personnel who could be volunteer teachers' assistants, who also will need orientation and guidance. They can be recruited and deployed in cooperation with more experienced educational NGOs, which have demonstrated their capacity for effective work in education, he added.
"The planning for reopening schools, ensuring safety and health measures, and helping students recoup losses have to be done for each school within the broad guideline of the education authorities. There is also a need for local planning for each upazila based on the local circumstances," he said.
"Reopening schools safely and implementing a recovery plan at each school will require extra resources. Some Tk66,000 crore has been allocated for the education sector in the national budget for the current fiscal year, a part of which allotted for regular activities will not be used due to the pandemic. It would be reasonable to redirect 10% of this budget in FY20 and FY21 to an education recovery plan," Dr Manzoor added.
"A certain amount, at least Tk10 crore for each of over 500 upazilas and thanas (distributed proportionately by student number), can be allocated to support primary and secondary schools in carrying out their recovery plans. Schools not covered by MPO-support also should be assisted, since at least one-third of school-going students currently study in schools that are not currently supported by the government," he said.
"The government must take up a two-year plan to help to recover learning losses and to check the number of dropouts. The curriculum has to be recast too. Only Bangla and mathematics can be mandatory for primary students, and Bangla, mathematics, English and science can be compulsory for secondary-level students."
Professor Dr Siddiqur Rahman, former director of the Institute of Education and Research at Dhaka University, told TBS that the enrollment rate might decrease hugely following the reopening of educational institutions, as many families will not send their children to schools due to financial crisis. Many students, especially those from poor families, have already lost interest in study."
"Teachers, guardians and school managing committees must work together to take students back to study. District and upazila level education officers also can play an important role in tracing students and get them back to schools, "he said.
Rasheda K Chowdhury, executive director of Campaign for Popular Education's (CAMPE), said, "The mid-day meal programme must be restarted so that the students can go to schools willingly. At the same time, the government must rethink the curriculum."
Similarly, the pandemic has caused massive layoffs at private schools, many of which have shuttered their academic activities, battered as they have been by the pandemic, with many others following suit.
This year a lot of students will attend their new classes with their inadequate knowledge through auto promotion, but the authorities lack adequate data for addressing all these issues.
Mizanur Rahman Sarker, secretary general of Bangladesh Kindergarten Association, told TBS most of the schools had been forced to close as they were not capable of continuing their operations due to a financial crisis.
"As a result, only 25% of kindergarten students from play to tenth grade have received new books this year," he added.
Several NGOs, including Brac, World Vision and Educo, working in the education sector recently stressed the need for reopening educational institutions, saying that a long school closure induced by Covid-19 has already caused learning losses for students and affected their mental health.
This might lead to a fall in enrollment and increase forced dropouts, they said.
The NGOs urged the government to carry out a month-long re-enrolment drive, disburse all unpaid stipends before enrolment, and reopen schools to gain parents' confidence.
They further recommended: supporting the most marginalised groups, including children with disabilities, expanding coverage of school feeding programmes, running separate awareness campaigns to bring female students back to school, plus building awareness among communities and families about the risks of child marriage and child labour as well as the need for education.