More than four months have passed since Bangladesh began its battle against the Covid-19 pandemic. In a bid to curb the deadly infection, the government on March 17 closed every educational institution and suspended all academic activities, excluding online classes.
The decision remains in effect to this day, and prevailing circumstances have raised serious concerns among educationists, parents and students about the future of the academic careers of the young.
This education sector is currently mired in issues, such as no exams, no evaluation, online classes not accessible to all, teachers without income, closure of hundreds of small private schools and guardians struggling to pay fees due to income shock caused by the pandemic.
Although the government, especially the prime minister, has so far tackled the economic crisis well by introducing stimulus measures faster than many other countries, the education ministry has apparently failed to take any effective initiative that can help students tide over academic losses.
Despite online classes becoming the "new normal" in the education sector, a significant number of students are unable to take advantage of this initiative due to a lack of digital devices and affordable internet access.
This has become a major drawback for many students amid the pandemic.
The education ministry is yet to resolve the internet issue. Education Minister Dr Dipu Moni recently urged telecom operators to slash internet package prices or provide the service free-of-cost to students. However, any such step in this regard is yet to be taken.
Sourab Hossain, a first year MBBS student at Dhaka Medical College, said, "We have to do lab work at least three days a week and it is part of our foundation course. We can participate in theoretical studies, but practical learning has become impossible.
"We have to face practical exams, but lab work has stopped completely. We have already lost five months, and we do not know what is actually awaiting us."
Meanwhile, Abir (not real name), a second year student of Electric and Electrical Engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet), said, "We learn about our subject mostly from the practical classes. But those classes have remained suspended since March 17.
"I am worried, as it is also uncertain when practical classes will resume. These classes are imperative to learn about this subject.
Professor AKM Masud, former president of the Buet Teachers' Association, said the academic council has decided to take classes online, but no decision has been made regarding the practical classes.
"Hopefully, we will have directives for the students soon," he added.
Roki Hasan (not real name), a second year student of the Health Economics Institute at Dhaka University, attended online classes from his village home on Saturday.
Roki faced internet issues, and could not attend the class properly. He also has no chance of taking part in the lesson again as he had participated in the online class by using a phone borrowed from his cousin.
Farah Ishaq, an assistant professor of the Health Economics Institute, said, "I took a class on Saturday, but my students suffered a multitude of issues. Many students said they could not connect to the internet and some faced power outages.
"At the same time, a good number of them have no smartphones. We are trying to help our students, but we cannot resolve their internet-related issues."
Speaking to The Business Standard, the Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University, Prof Akhtaruzzaman, said, "We have formed a committee to identify the problems. We will do everything to maintain the quality of education."
Online coaching getting popular
Online coaching is getting increasingly popular day by day, as students are reluctant to participate in recorded classes by the education ministry because of poor delivery and management.
Muaz, a higher secondary student at Government Science College in Dhaka, said, "Recorded classes aired on Sangsad TV are boring. We cannot ask questions and the classes are not informative either.
"On the other hand, classes offered by coaching centres are informative and we can put questions to our teachers. These classes are interesting as well."
A study by the Institute of Governance and Development shows that only 16 percent of students watch educational programmes like "Ghore Boshe Shikhi" and "Amar Ghorey Amar School" on television.
Moreover, a large percentage of the small numbers of students who watch these educational TV programmes do not find them helpful.
The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics' Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2019 shows that only 37.6 percent of households in the country have access to the internet. It also found that only 5.6 percent of the households have computers.
Professor Syed Omar Faruk, Director General of Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education, said the authorities are trying to connect all students through online classes.
"We are also trying to ensure quality classes," he said.
Pressure to pay tuition fees
School authorities are frequently pressuring the guardians to pay the students' fees, but most parents are now suffering from financial crises because of the Covid-19 income shock.
Barrister Omar Faruk, president of the English Medium School Guardian Forum, said, "We have demanded that fees be decreased by 50 percent. We have submitted applications to school authorities, but only a few schools have fulfilled our demand."
A number of guardians alleged that school authorities have put tremendous pressure on them for paying the fees of their wards.
Nusrat Jahan, a guardian, said, "My husband has lost his job and we are now facing hardships. We currently do not have the financial capability to pay the fees. However, the school authorities have told me that my son will not be promoted if we fail to pay the fees."
Shahan Ara Begum, principal of Motijheel Ideal School and College, however said she did not put any pressure on the guardians. "We have asked them to pay the fees. How will we run the institution if we do not get fees?" she added.
Number of dropouts to go up
Children's engagement in income-generating and household work due to a slump in their family income will lead to increased numbers of school dropouts in Bangladesh once the coronavirus outbreak is over, according to research by the Campaign for Popular Education (Campe).
The research has also found that absenteeism and irregular attendance in schools will also increase in the post-pandemic period.
Study hours of primary and secondary-level students have declined by 80 percent since educational institutions were ordered closed amid the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a study by the Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD).
"There has been a significant reduction in students' total study time – from 10 hours to merely two hours a day. This is alarming," the BIGD said in its report released at a webinar held recently.
Commenting on the issue, Campe's Executive Director Rasheda K Chowdhury said, "The government must take special measures to cover academic losses.
"At least a two-year plan (2020-21) must be adopted to deal with the disruption of the academic calendar by completing lessons, adjusting exams, adjusting vacations and supporting learners."
HSC, JSC and PEC exams uncertain
The education ministry is also determined not to begin the HSC examinations of 2020 and admissions for the 2020-21 academic sessions for eleventh grade students before the Covid-19 situation is normalised.
As a result, the HSC exams and admissions are now uncertain.
Commenting on the matter, Dhaka Education Board Chairman Ziaul Haque said, "It is impossible to begin the HSC examinations during the Covid-19 pandemic. Thousands of students, guardians, teachers and staff will gather and create a crowded situation during the examinations across the country.
"It will contribute towards a further spread of the virus among more people. So, no examinations will be held before the situation normalises. We cannot put everyone at risk of Covid-19 infection by beginning the examinations."
The Junior School Certificate and Primary Completion Certificate examinations are also uncertain. Besides, the education minister recently hinted at expanding the current academic year to March next year.
Ignored in the budget
Education remains ignored in the budget as the government earmarked Tk66,401 crore, which is 11.7 percent of the total outlay, for this sector in fiscal year 2020-21.
The allocation is just 2.09 percent of the GDP (gross domestic product), which is much less compared to any other South Asian countries.
As a result, experts anticipate that the country's quality of education will continue to produce certificate holders who cannot cope with the demands of the job market.
This year, experts were hoping that the budget would address the probable rise in dropout cases due to fresh poverty caused by the impacts of Covid-19 and child marriage, but their hopes have been dashed.
Responding to a query, Professor Emeritus of Brac University Manzoor Ahmed said, "The government did not allocate special funds to cover the losses in the education sector caused by the pandemic.
"A committee must be formed at every upazila, and sufficient funds must be allocated to tackle the situation. It is very unfortunate that the allocation is still 11 percent of total outlay and 2 percent of total GDP."