Education in Bangladesh is one of the sectors worst-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, with millions of students staying away from regular studies for over 6 months.
School dropouts at all levels will increase in tandem with rising poverty amid the pandemic as many male students will be compelled to go for earning for their families while many female ones will be married off early, educationists say.
In such a murky context, the government has taken up a mega plan to check dropouts at schools and ensure quality education for students.
As part of the plan, the primary and mass education ministry will provide free meals to around 1.41 crore students countrywide for 5 years, set up handwashing facilities at every school and continue the education outreach programme. Meanwhile, the education ministry will appoint psychologists at the upazila level to keep secondary level students in a mentally sound state.
The primary education ministry has already prepared a development project proposal under the Primary School Feeding Programme involving Tk19,280 crore. It will be finalised at the project evaluation committee meeting scheduled for this week.
The free meal project will cover primary level students of 250 upazilas by 2021, 350 upazilas by 2022 and all upazilas by 2023, said Md Nurunnabi Sohag, senior assistant secretary of the ministry.
Around 34,000 students from three upazilas –Barguna's Bamna, Jamalpur's Islampur and Bandarban's Lama – have been getting meals since 2013 while 14 more upazilas were added to the list from 2019, he added.
"We are already providing biscuits to about 3 million children at primary schools in 104 upazilas across the country," he stated.
Providing meals is an effective measure to prevent many students from dropping out of schools. It has been observed that dropout rates have fallen by around 6% in schools that have been getting meals, Sohag explained.
At present, the school dropout rate is 37% at the secondary level and 18%at the primary level.
Akram-Al-Hossain, senior secretary of the ministry, said the project will definitely help to check dropouts and ensure quality education.
"We are going to hold a project evaluation committee meeting this week. I hope the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council will approve the project soon," he added.
It will take 2-3 months to complete the whole process of the project, he added.
Under another project, the ministry will spend Tk126.53 crore on continuing education outreach programmes on television, radio and Internet throughout the year to help students understand lessons and cope with any disaster like Covid-19 in future.
The Global Partnership for Education, a multi-stakeholder platform, will provide the fund. Under the project, 500 teachers will be trained to develop teaching contents for pre-primary to Class-X students based on their textbooks.
The ministry has another plan to set up wash blocks and basins at every primary school. It will also provide masks to students once schools are reopened. Schools will also be provided with equipment to check the temperatures of students.
In addition, the ministry will recruit about 40,000 teachers for primary schools soon.
Meanwhile, on September 7, the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education asked head teachers of government and MPO-listed (Monthly Pay Order) high schools to communicate with students over mobile phones to keep them mentally stable and healthy.
Earlier on September 5, Education Minister Dr Dipu Moni said the ministry was considering recruiting psychologists across the country.
"Students have become mentally distressed due to the pandemic. We are thinking about hiring psychologists in each district primarily. We will also appoint psychologists in each upazila who will train a male and a female teacher at each school," she explained.
Dipu Moni on Saturday told a webinar that the government was thinking of providing study loans to needy students.
Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam, a reputed educationist and retired professor of English at Dhaka University, said the dropout rate will rise to at least 70% from the present level if the coronavirus crisis lasts for a longer period.
"We always see the government's negligence toward the education sector as the budget made for it is not satisfactory. Quality education and education for all are impossible without a handsome allocation to 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 a monthly allocation of Tk500 for each poor student along with some stimulus package for teachers.
Rasheda K Chowdhury, executive director of Campaign for Popular Education, said there is no alternative to adopting special measures to recover the academic losses sustained in the education sector.
At least a two-year plan (2020-21) must be adopted to deal with the disruption caused to the academic calendar. This may include plans for completing lessons, adjusting exams and vacations as also support for learners, she said.
Manzoor Ahmed, professor emeritus at Brac University, said, "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."