Kendua Joyhari Spry Government High School in Netrokona has only eight teachers for 709 students, meaning one teacher teaching 89 students. The teacher-student ratio (TSR) here is far higher than the standard ratio of 1:20.
Recovering students' learning losses from the pandemic-induced school closures of more than 11 months, preparing students for the new curriculum, and even ensuring regular academic activities appear to be a Herculean task for this school.
Rokon Uddin Khan, acting head teacher of the school, told The Business Standard they had been requesting local officials to recruit more teachers before reopening as they fear academic activities would be hampered otherwise.
"We will face tremendous pressure and it will also be impossible to carry out regular academic activities. In fact, we will not be able to take extra classes," he said.
Md Abul Kalam Azad, head teacher of Chowgacha Hazi Mortuza Ali High School in Jashore, said teachers in his school were under tremendous pressure even before the pandemic and extra efforts for the recovery of learning loss due to Covid-19 would be unmanageable with just 21 teachers for 850 students.
Schools across the country are running with fewer than required teachers as reflected in official data. For 2.78 crore students in primary and secondary schools, there are 9.2 lakh teachers.
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (Banbeis), the TSR in primary and secondary schools is 1:37 and 1:45 respectively, with government-run institutions having poorer TSR in all tiers of education compared to private ones.
Bangladesh is now on the way to becoming an upper middle income country but its TSR is lower even than the average of that of low-income countries. In middle income countries, the ratio is 1:24 in primary and 1:18 in secondary education.
In South Asia, Bangladesh lags behind India and Pakistan in this area even though it has outperformed the two South Asian countries on some major economic and social indicators.
Poor TSR will make the process of overcoming the learning losses harder for Bangladesh, experts say, calling for increased spending on teachers.
They relate learning losses to future earning losses as indicated in a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The study suggests that students in grades 1-12 affected by school closures might expect some 3% lower income over their entire lifetimes, leading to 1.5% lower annual GDP for the remainder of the century.
Empty classrooms have not affected only education. They also hit education-related businesses – from sales of study essentials such as ballpoint pens and paper to also snacks and beverages, and transport – hard, holding back the speed of recovery while all other sectors returned to normalcy.
Industries estimate that businesses based on the academic activities lost around Tk50,000 crore, according to a report published in The Business Standard on 9 January.
"Our future growth is in terrible danger now. Our education system is already weak. On top of that, basic education is completely closed. Most people do not have digital devices, and they are completely out of education," said Dr Zahid Hussain, former lead economist at the World Bank's Dhaka office.
"The coronavirus has caused major disruptions on the human development index. Covid-19-induced losses of human resources will have medium- and long-term impacts. As learning activities are closed, learning poverty is increasing. The real impact will be understood when this manpower having basic education deficits will enter the job market," he said.
He continued, "Our education is being hampered, and we need to think about resuming educational activities quickly. In this regard, a guideline needs to be drawn up centrally with the coordination of health professionals, parents, and teachers. At the local level, strategies need to be adopted to follow the guideline.
"Students have been automatically promoted to adjust sessions, and syllabuses have been shortened. But this has hampered education."
Economic losses would grow if schools are unable to re-start quickly and would be felt more deeply by disadvantaged students, the OECD study says.
No such research on economic impacts on the education sector was done in Bangladesh, and Banbeis has no precise idea of the actual state of learners across the country.
Such research is vital for appropriate planning to gauge the damage already done to education from primary to higher levels.
Brac University Professor Emeritus Manzoor Ahmed said a proposal put forward in May last year to form committees in districts and upazilas to assess learning losses had been ignored.
He said developed countries in Europe, America, and Asia had made plans based on research to recover from the hiatus in education.
"Even India did not sit idle as it ordered door-to-door surveys to detect dropouts and bring them back to classes," said Prof Manzoor Ahmed.
Bangladesh lags behind even in making a decision on reopening schools. It is the only country in South Asia – and one among 28 nations globally – that is yet to reopen educational institutions, data from Unesco show.
Schools, colleges, and universities remain closed since 16 March last year. No public exams, including Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) tests, were held and students received automatic promotions to next grades.
The delay in reopening schools would add to the loss and further lower the quality of education – which was low even before the pandemic compared to regional average – in math and English in particular at primary level.
Having more teachers is an immediate need for schools now to help learners overcome some of their learning losses and prepare them for the new curriculum of the higher grades they have been automatically promoted to, experts say.
Citing the example of how countries like Singapore and South Korea benefited from higher investment in teachers, they argue investment in teachers to ensure quality education is an investment in future skills and economic growth.
They say Bangladesh needs another five lakh teachers at primary and secondary levels to be on a par with peer countries in reaching the average TSR.
Currently, there are about 13 lakh teachers for more than four crore students from pre-primary to higher secondary levels in the country.
In this circumstance, educationists said there was no alternative but to appoint new skilled teachers and prepare the existing teachers by providing short training to face the new challenges during the pandemic.
This will call for an increased investment in education, which was only 2.09% of the GDP in FY21, down from 2.12% in the year before.
The latest report titled "Education Finance Watch (EFW) 2021" jointly produced by the World Bank and Unesco said despite additional funding needs, low and lower-middle-income countries have cut their public education budgets since the onset of the pandemic.
In 2018-19, high-income countries spent annually an equivalent of $8,501 on every child or youth's education whereas lower-middle-income countries spent $276 and low-income countries spent only $48.
Covid-19 is only widening this huge per capita education spending gap between rich and poor countries.
Professor Dr Siddiqur Rahman, former director of the Institute of Education and Research, told The Business Standard the government must recruit some teachers to recover learning losses and ensure quality education.
"Otherwise, it will create a big gap," he said, suggesting forming a national teachers' recruitment commission.
Professor Emeritus Manzoor said the crisis of teachers would impact academic activities now, stressing more allocations for recruiting teachers and engaging non-governmental organisations in managing classes in a new form.
He said the government should allocate at least Tk10 crore for each upazila to spend on recovering learning losses.
Professor Golam Faruk, director general of the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education, said they were considering appointing more teachers to recover learning losses and to ensure quality education in the upcoming days.
Though quality has been stressed, the national curriculum authority took a shortcut.
The curriculum authority will prepare a short syllabus for this year to reduce learning burdens on students, said Professor Narayan Chandra Saha, chairman of the National Curriculum and Textbook Board.