Is there any learning loss recovery plan for our kids?
Anima Boishnob is shocked to see her daughter Tropa, a second grader, has forgotten to write her name in Bangla. She could not even write the name of her school, or those of her parents. A brief test sent from the primary school stumped her completely as she could not solve any of the math or English problems.
"Your brain is completely muddled up," her mother exclaimed in frustration.
Khurshed Alam, a senior English teacher of a secondary school in a Feni village, fails to bring his ninth grader son to the study table. "Why do I have to study? School is closed," the boy protested to his parents as he refused to take a break from his games until late afternoon.
In the countryside, children go out freely at all hours. There is no enforcement of the restrictions on movement here. "They go everywhere except to their classes and do everything except focus on study time," said a visibly upset Khurshed.
Schools have been kept closed since 18 March 2020 and the closure has been extended for a dozen times, with the latest extension set up to 13 June, keeping 4 crore students away from their classrooms for 15 months.
The damage to the children from missing their classes for so long will not be easy to recover from. Sixty lakh school-going children risk learning loss, says a joint study by the Power and Participation Research Center (PPRC) and the Brac Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), Brac University.
Some 19% of primary and 25% of secondary school-going children are at risk of learning loss, it said in May.
This damage from learning loss is more aggravated for urban secondary school-going children – 26% for girls and 30% for boys – and poorer groups, with secondary school-going boys from extremely poor families being at the highest risk of 33% – possibly as a result of the Covid-19 induced economic shock.
Last year Unesco warned that 1.1 crore girls might not return to school even after coronavirus restrictions were lifted around the world. It stressed designing an awareness campaign to bring them back to class when schools reopen.
Similar concerns were aired by researchers in a pre-budget webinar of The Business Standard.
They feared that child labour, dropouts, learning losses, malnutrition, child marriage, and early pregnancy might increase due to the closure of schools for more than a year.
They suggested incentives for students and teachers and demanded the budget allocate more funds for education keeping in mind the reopening of schools and the recovery of learning losses.
Their suggestions and fears have apparently been ignored in the proposed new budget.
The budget also does not mention the learning loss or recovery path.
"In view of the significant reduction in infections, we decided to resume educational activities in all educational institutions from 31 March 2021. But it had to be postponed due to the onslaught of the second wave of Covid-19 in the second week of March 2021," the budget speech reads, without stating a word about the next plan to reopen.
The budget speech has got statements of allocations and achievements from various projects over the years such as giving free textbooks and school meals, building new schools and paying teachers.
Development allocations for primary education – most affected by the closure particularly in rural areas – have, in fact, dropped compared to the current fiscal year.
The finance minister mentioned initiatives like "Learning at Home" on television, claiming "This has made it possible to keep about 14 million primary students engaged in their study."
But a look at pupils like Tropa and her frustrated mother can tell how well the "study" was going on in a village.
More than 29 lakh online classes have been organised at the secondary and higher secondary levels, and about 5 lakh online classes for university levels, engaging 2.76 crore students, the budget speech states.
However, education research organisation Campaign for Popular Education (Campe) in a study in January said 69% of primary and secondary students could not access online classes as 58% of them did not even have the devices required to attend online classes.
It stated 75% of students and 76% of parents said schools should reopen.
Campe also urged the authorities to start reopening schools in February.
The education authorities in January took some initiatives to resume classes maintaining health rules and asked the schools to dust off and get ready to reopen in February or March, though no date was given.
Earlier in September, the primary education ministry issued health advisory and guidelines to reopen schools – a student per bench and one class per day, excepting classes five, ten and twelve.
All those initiatives seem to have been shelved.
Now, throwing open the classroom doors has become even more uncertain as infection rate shot well above 11% for the last few days and newer districts outside Dhaka are added daily to the list of areas reporting higher infection rates, making the perception that the virus is concentrated in cities only a wishful thought.
Until 7 June, 45 districts outside Dhaka reported an alarming rise in infection, prompting experts to call for extending strict lockdowns.
So the school reopening date will be pushed back once more for sure.
But there must be a well-designed roadmap ready to reopen classes in phases whenever the situation improves.
Dr Kazi Iqbal, senior research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), thinks two special initiatives need to be taken urgently: one is for primary students and the other for secondary and higher secondary ones.
"Most likely, a second grade student has forgotten how to write, how to solve simple math problems or even the numerals. If they are promoted to third grade, they will require remedial courses," he said.
The learning loss is deeper for higher grades – from the tenth to twelfth grades – and most of it could never be recovered, he feared.
Special coaching, for science students in particular, can help them reintegrate to the previous lessons to some extent, the researcher said, suggesting assessment tests in primary and secondary levels to come up with remedial intervention plans.
Dr Iqbal agreed that the budget did not contain anything specific about Covid-induced learning loss recovery, but steps can be taken anytime.
"It is not necessary that the budget will have to spell out every little detail. It is the duty of the two ministries of education to make their own roadmaps," he said.
The number of dropouts may rise with girls being more vulnerable, requiring special effort to bring them back to the classroom, he felt.
For their lucrative packages of free boarding and food, madrasas are likely to draw more children from poor families and the government needs to rethink the whole strategy for mainstream education, the BIDS senior researcher noted.
Advance planning helped developed countries reopen schools with gradual improvement in Covid-19 situation, helped by rapid vaccination leading to drastic fall in infection.
In the US, "K-12" schools are preparing to welcome pupils of classes 1 to 12 in summer sessions in June to make up for lost learning as online schooling programmes were often ineffective.
Schools are offering bonuses to teachers for extra class hours to bridge the learning gap, while pupils will get meals and transportation services.
The UK government announced a £1.4bn funding package – £50 more per pupil – to help children to make up for lost learning due to Covid lockdowns.
But education recovery commissioner Kevan Collins resigned, saying the allocation falls far short of what was needed. The commissioner sought 10 times higher allocation for steps like 100 extra hours of teaching per pupil and extension of school time by 30 extra minutes every day.
Opposition Labour wanted Tory MPs to join the demand for more cash for schools and asked why Chancellor of Exchequer Rishi Sunak blocked pitches from Education Secretary Gavin Williamson for extra cash.
"The Conservatives have treated children as an afterthought throughout the pandemic and are now neglecting them in our recovery," Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, said in the House of Commons.
Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Parliament is in the budget session now.
Will our finance minister have to face such pressures for higher educational allocation? Will the two ministers of education tell in the House what they sought and what they got, and how they plan to reopen classes?