Experts fear that child labour, dropouts, learning losses, malnutrition, child marriage, and early pregnancy will increase in the future with students being away from school and academic engagement for more than a year.
They suggest prioritising the education sector in the budget and demand more investment in this sector, keeping in mind the reopening of schools and the recovery of learning losses accumulated over the last one year.
Addressing a pre-budget discussion organised by The Business Standard on Saturday, they also demanded incentives for students and their families, teachers, and educational institutions.
The Business Standard Editor Inam Ahmed gave the welcome address at the event, "TBS pre-budget webinar: Designing a pandemic fighting budget."
"We can see what is happening to the economy due to Covid-19. But we do not realise the extent to which education security is at risk," said Rasheda K Choudhury, former adviser to a caretaker government and executive director of Ganasakkharata Avijan, at the dialogue moderated by Dr Zahid Hussain, former lead economist of the World Bank's Dhaka office.
Rasheda said investment in education had not increased in the past 10 years and how money is spent in this sector is questionable.
"There are also questions about accountability and transparency. The education ministry and the primary education ministry spend more than other ministries, but this time, expenditure is at risk.
"We thought Covid-19 would subside in a year, but it is still not clear when the crisis will end. In this situation, immediate, medium, and long-term planning is needed by emphasising education along with health, agriculture, and infrastructure in the budget," she explained.
She stressed two points for investing in education. One is to recover the losses this sector has incurred in the last one year.
"Our achievements are going to be wasted. For example, we achieved equality between boys and girls and 100% enrolment. We ensured disability education. The ethnic communities have received books in five languages. These achievements will now be at risk."
The second point, she said, is preparing to reopen schools maintaining hygiene guidelines.
"Two ministries have already prepared for this, but they did so considering Covid-19 would go away within a year. Now they need to prepare keeping in mind that the pandemic will stay for a long time and people have to live with it."
Zahid Hussain said the education sector was one of the hardest hit in the pandemic but it had not been duly addressed.
Schools have remained closed since 17 March last year, which drastically changed the lives of 4 crore students at the primary, secondary, and higher education levels.
Speaking about alternative methods employed to continue education, he said TV, radio, mobile phone, and Internet were used. But a survey shows that at best 31% of students were able to access or adapt to these new mediums of education outside the traditional classroom.
"Moreover, we do not know how effective their learning was. In the last one year, 70% of students did not get the opportunity to receive formal education through the alternative methods. They were educated by their parents or relatives."
He said there are economic aspects of education, and small and cottage industries serve that economy.
"Many sell puffed rice, ice cream, and tea, and transport students to and from schools in vans. Their profits, production, and employment have declined. Many organisations have gone bankrupt."
He said these small entrepreneurs do not get bank loans as banks are not interested in lending to them.
Costs of small loans are high and maintaining the income-expense ratio is difficult, he said.
"The government has recently taken some alternative measures to provide loans to the cottage, micro, small, and medium enterprise (CMSME) sector through the SME Foundation, Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation, Palli Sanchay Bank, and Karmasangsthan Bank."
He also said, "Our social security sector has expanded a lot. Pension and interest on savings certificates are also shown as part of the social security programme. Administrative costs are very high due to small programmes and there have been instructions to bring that down.
"Cash support instead of food-based assistance has been suggested. If students, teachers, educational institutions, and families are included in social security programmes, the schemes can be enhanced further. Once a programme is launched in our country, it stays."
Dr Kazi Iqbal, senior research fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, said surveys had shown that Covid-19 had disrupted learning at 60-70% of schools and there had been no scope to run internet-based education there.
"A Brac Institute of Governance and Development study found that teaching hours had reduced by 80%. In villages, it was even worse. The immediate and long-term impact of learning losses, and how much of that we can recover, is a big challenge now."
"Presumably, losses will be higher for students who are in grades I to IV and in XII. In terms of a one-hour loss, there is a big difference between a first-grader and a fifth-grader," he added.