- About 4.5 crore students at pre-primary to secondary levels left out of academic activities
- Many teachers in schools in villages are eager to start classes online
- Internet service now covers 98 percent areas of the country, says Telecommunication Minister Mustafa Jabbar
- Besides lack of access to devices, an absence of policy decision is the reason why schools have not started online classes yet
Shuvo Das, an honours student of law at Jagannath University, attends online classes twice a week from his village home in Feni. He uses Airtel's Internet package for a better network and an affordable data price. Two two-hour classes on Zoom application require 1 gigabyte of data.
"One GB was Tk19, but it went up to Tk23 after the budget and now it is Tk29," says Shuvo. He used to stay in a mess in old Dhaka and bear his expenses from private tuitions. Now he has to seek money from his father to buy the Internet package.
Tk240 a month for mobile data – an amount not so small for his father who runs a hairdressing shop in the local market with incomes dropping to a fourth of pre-Covid-19 days.
Shuvo has not heard of any special package or discount offered by any mobile operator for students.
After a pause of four months, universities – both private and public – started online classes earlier this month.
While reopening is still far away for primary or secondary schools, even starting academic activities online on a larger scale is also not getting enough consideration. Little or no access to devices is one of the reasons. Forget desktop or laptop – getting access even to a smartphone is not easy for school students, particularly in villages.
"Of my students, only 10 percent have smartphones used by their parents, 30 percent have televisions at home," says Jinnatun Naher Kazal, headteacher of Arkaim Primary School in Sonagazi upazila of Feni.
Most pupils cannot follow distant learning classes aired by the state-run television channel, she adds.
"We are asked to take care of the students over mobile phones. We try, but you cannot teach kids over the phone!" she says.
She is of the view that schools should be opened on a limited scale maintaining health guidelines and having digital thermometer and handwashing facilities at the entrance.
"Even if one pupil is seated per table, we can bring pupils of at least one whole class every day. Thus, pupils of six classes will come separately at least once in a week," she says, sharing her own thoughts as she believes that keeping primary kids away from schools means letting them forget what they have learnt.
Secondary education is no better. Into four months of class suspension, headteachers of secondary schools of Songazai upazila had a meeting on Wednesday to see whether online classes can be started.
An online class network connected to the government's A2i programme was opened much earlier. But very few schools have joined so far.
Bishnupur High School has an IT lab with multimedia classroom facility and trained IT teachers. But its 1,700 students are not getting online class facilities like their peers in towns and cities.
"Roughly 40 percent of students have access to smartphones in the family. Even then, online classes should start. I feel it as a teacher and a guardian, too," says Khurshid Alam, a senior teacher of the school once ranked the best high school in the district.
Headmaster Hossain Mohammed Alamgir is also worried about the academic future of his students, more than a half of whom are girls.
"We are planning to start online classes – at least a 20-minute period. We will open a page and join the network to deliver live classes," he says.
The entire education system – from pre-primary to university level – has been on pause since late March. Students in rural areas have been hit the hardest as they lack high-speed Internet connectivity. Whatever connectivity is available, it is least accessed due to the cost of data and the lack of devices available to the students.
Lack of initiative and awareness is no less, says Ashraf Abir, director of Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS).
"If English medium schools can run online classes, why can't Bangla medium ones?" he asks.
Given the state of countrywide Internet coverage, online classes can be run in villages, towns and cities. There are some costs involved, but it should not be too big if shared by the institutions and pupils.
There are free platforms like Google Meet. More are there, both paid and free, such as Zoom, Oracle, and Microsoft Teams. Local IT professionals are also developing apps suiting the local needs.
But institutions are not willing to come forward more because of a lack of awareness rather than due to want of money.
"Little orientation in digital technology may be another reason that holds many of them back," Ashraf Abir thinks.
He believes an order from the education ministry for schools to go online may work. "Schools will then be forced to take initiatives. If one school starts, others will feel pressured to follow."
Connectivity or other problems may prevent 10-20 percent students, but a similar percentage of students are absent from classes at normal times, too, Abir argues.
"The situation is new and extraordinary. All we need to do is change our mindset and think beyond 100 years' conventions," says the IT entrepreneur.
Garment factories have reopened, public and private offices and businesses have reopened. But there is no decision yet about reopening of the educational institutions, which were closed on March 17.
Meanwhile, sadly, millions of young minds are going to waste. With a very few exceptions in big cities and towns, about 4.5 crore students at pre-primary to secondary levels have been left out of academic activities across the country.
Reopening schools safely will not be cheap as it will require thousands of bottles of hand sanitisers and facemasks every day. Schools will require flexible schedules, staggered classes and extra care for those who have fallen behind.
UK government has announced extra amounts for schools on top of the regular budget to meet the additional hygiene expenditures after reopening.
No such allocation has been made in the new budget in Bangladesh.
The cost of indefinite closure
The world is assessing the cost of keeping children away from schools for an indefinite period. The World Bank estimates that five months' closure of schools would wipe out future earnings of $10 trillion, equivalent to 7 percent of the global GDP.
In an article titled "Let them learn", The Economist says the risks of keeping schools closed far outweigh the benefits.
Governments across the globe are looking for ways to reopen schools as soon as the virus outbreak is tamed. Many countries in Europe and East Asia have reopened their classrooms with measures in place to reduce risks.
But elsewhere the progress is slow.
In Bangladesh, reopening of schools is undecided as virus infection shows no sign of waning.
So, online class remains the only option for now.
The total number of Internet subscribers stood over 10.2 crore in May, 94 percent of whom use mobile Internet.
Mobile phones could be the most viable medium for online classes.
Attitude towards the mobile phone has so far been negative, with teachers and parents preferring restrictions on its usage by young children. Carrying mobile phones in classrooms and exam halls is punishable. Children under 18 cannot get registered SIMs.
But this device has appeared as the savior in this pandemic time.
"Locally manufactured mobile phones now command 50 percent of the handset market here. We need to make smart mobile phones more available to students," says Post, Telecommunication and Information Technology Minister Mustafa Jabbar.
He says the government is capable of providing infrastructural supports needed by the education ministry to ensure online classes in educational institutions of all levels.
"Internet service now covers 98 percent areas of the country. The call must come from the education ministry. We need to know what support they need," the minister told The Business Standard on Wednesday.
The government has already extended free Wi-fi services to 587 educational institutions. Fibre optic lines have reached 2,600 unions – meaning more than half of the country's villages have now access to broadband connectivity.
"We can help the rural educational institutions create pointed Wi-fi zones to facilitate online classes," the minister said.
The new vat and tax imposed in the budget have raised the cost of Internet services and the finance ministry can think how they can help reduce mobile data costs for students, Mustafa Jabbar pointed out.
"If we do not learn lessons from the coronavirus pandemic and make our education system digital, we will risk losing skilled human resources for the future," the minister said.