Mirpur Siddhanto High School, in the capital, had 240 students in class V last year. But only 141 of them enrolled in the next grade this year.
The school authorities have been trying to bring all the students back to school, but many have already started working, are reluctant to continue their studies or have relocated elsewhere.
The school had 11 pre-primary students last year who were supposed to enrol in class I this year, but only four of them did.
Nazrul Islam Roni, head teacher of the school, told The Business Standard the delay in reopening schools is hampering existing students' enrolment in the next grade.
"Many guardians are thinking of enrolling their children after schools reopen. But some are determined not to send their children to school this year either. Unfortunately, a good number of students have already started working to support their families," he said.
Qamrul Islam Rashed, headmaster of a rural school named Sirajpur Government Primary School in Noakhali's Companiganj upazila, said he had 39 pre-primary students last year and lost nine of them as they did not enrol in class I.
"Not only that, I lost six to seven students from each class, on average, as they neither enrolled in the next class nor got new books," he said.
Like these two schools, the picture of school enrolment is almost the same everywhere. In some schools, the situation is even worse.
Education experts, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and teachers think the government's success in pre-primary and secondary school enrolment may be tarnished if it does not take proper measures to bring students back to the classroom.
They also said most families in Bangladesh could face economic hardship due to Covid-19 impacts, which could force them to send their children to work and marry off female students early. This will reduce enrolment further and the dropout rate will increase eventually.
The net enrolment rate and dropout rate in primary education are 97% and 18%, respectively. In secondary education, they are 53% and 37%, respectively.
According to the latest data of the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (Banbeis), the occupation of 47% of guardians is farming while 19% work as labourers, 8% are small traders and 5% work in other professions – including as loom workers, potters and fisherfolk.
Professor Dr Siddiqur Rahman, former director of the Institute of Education and Research at the University of Dhaka, told The Business Standard the enrolment rate might fall dramatically as many families might not send their children to school due to financial crisis.
He said many students, especially those of poor families, have already lost interest in their studies.
"Teachers, guardians and school authorities must work together to bring students back to study. District and upazila education officers can play an important role in listing students who have discontinued their education and then bring them back to school," the professor said.
The government can allocate special funds that will be spent on bringing students back, he added.
Professor Emeritus of Brac University Dr Manzoor Ahmed said the government did achieve success in primary education enrolment but has not ensured quality education yet due to a lack of proper planning and poor allocations.
"Most of the students are still out of their studies since March last year when the pandemic struck. We have raised our voices, requesting the authorities allocate a sizable fund to bring students back to school," he continued.
"We have also urged the government to form committees at the upazila level to face future challenges, but they paid no heed. As a result, a good number of students have yet to enrol," he added.
On paper, Bangladesh has made progress in primary education. The government is spending over Tk1,000 crore every year to give primary school students stipends. Last year alone, Tk1,550 crore was set aside for this purpose.
Each student, in 67,000 government primary schools, gets Tk100 per month while some schools get free meals from the World Food Programme. That has helped the government attain an enviable 97% primary education enrolment rate.
But this achievement will be overshadowed if the enrolment rate falls now.
A 2019 World Bank report titled "An Early-Warning Indicator for The Human Capital Project" said only $249 (purchasing power parity) is spent on each primary school student in Bangladesh – the lowest among South Asian countries except Afghanistan.
It noted that Sri Lanka spends $1,474 on each primary student while India spends three times more than Bangladesh – about $624. The figure in Pakistan is $467.
Due to low investment in primary education, Bangladesh achieved 0.48 points out of 1 on the 2019 Human Capital Index while Sri Lanka scored 0.58.
Mizanur Rahman Sarker, secretary general of Bangladesh Kindergarten Association, told The Business Standard most of the schools had been forced to close as they were not capable of continuing their operations due to financial crisis.
"As a result, only 25% of kindergarten students from play to tenth grade received new books this year," he added.
NGOs urge government to check enrolment dip
Several NGOs 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 enrolment 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.