More than 100 sets of undistributed books have made assistant head teacher Atiqur Rahman worried about potential dropouts of a large number of students at his primary school in Demra of Pabna.
His school has 700 students from grade I to V and received one set of books for each of them. In past years, they used to distribute books among students on the day of the book festival. This time, they took seven days last month to do the same job.
Yet, so far 100 students did not show up – which is over 14% of total pupils.
"I fear many of them have got involved in income generating work to cushion the pandemic shock on their families. It will be a hard job to bring them back to school," said Atiqur Rahman.
Reports dispatched by our correspondents from some other districts tell similar stories.
Take the example of Bhola.
A primary school in Charfession of Bhola reported that around 21% of students did not come to collect the free textbooks for their new classes.
In Borhanuddin upazila, a primary school saw absent 18% of students who like other students in the country were promoted to new classes without examinations.
Professor Imran Ahmed, principal of Brahmanbaria School and College, has the same story. He said more than 10% of books remained undistributed in his institution as students had not come to collect them. They may have stopped study, he said.
Senior teacher of a primary school in the district headquarters Nargis Begum said some students of her school did not collect books. They are from poor families and may not return to school, she said.
The undistributed textbooks appear to be a reflection of the fear experts have continuously expressed about a big increase in primary school dropout worsening the situation.
According to a survey conducted by the Directorate of Primary Education in 2019, the primary student dropout rate has come down to 17.90% from 40%.
The government targets to lower the dropout rate to 10% by 2023.
But what has been achieved in a decade – though measures such as distribution of free textbooks, midday meals and stipend – is now under threat.
There is no data available yet on the potential rise of dropout due to the pandemic as schools still remain closed.
"After reopening of schools, the impact will be clear as we will know how many students fail to return to schools," says Rasheda K Chowdhury, executive director of Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE).
She, however, says the field level information they are receiving indicates many students did not return to schools to receive the books.
"The dropout rate may possibly double," she said, adding, "We are also receiving information from the field that many students did not take admission to new classes."
Dinajpur Collectorate School and College tells its own story.
Last year, the number of students who took admission to second grade was 40, but this year it has reduced to 29. "We are getting fewer students mainly because of the pandemic," he says.
When his attention was drawn to the field situation, National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB) Chairman Prof Narayan Chandra Saha said they have sent textbooks to all schools across the country, but they have not yet conducted any survey on how many students did not receive the books.
"We will look into the matter," he said.
Secondary education is also experiencing similar pandemic shocks as many schools embraced the same fate.
The current dropout rate in secondary level, which stands at 36%, may drop too as experts fear more than 45% of the secondary-level students may not return to schools, if they reopen.
Head teacher of Dinajpur Eidgah Girls High School Fazlur Rahman said last year 141 students took admission to grade VI, which decreased to 122 this year.
The most worrisome thing, he said, is that every year around 600 students apply seeking admission to his school against 250 seats. But this year, they have received only 122 applicants.
"We have cancelled admission tests and allowed all to enroll," Fazlur Rahman said.
The culprit behind the potential increase in dropout is poverty, which has doubled because of the pandemic and reached 40%, according to several research organisations.
A latest CAMPE survey reflects the economic hardship of the families of students as it says 58% of students did not have the means to join online classes because they did not have necessary devices.
The survey found that the financial ability of these students' parents to fulfil basic necessities of the families has declined to 29% from 73%.
The poor economic condition of families has forced many guardians to marry off their minor girl children due to poverty which increased child marriage rate.
The math is clear. The school dropout will surge as has the poverty rate.
Uplifting 20% new poor people above the poverty line can be helpful for restoring the pre-pandemic level in the education sector.
Yet, experts believe, that might not be able to bring back students who have dropped out during the pandemic. A faster recovery from the poverty trap can be helpful for preventing future dropouts.
The most important question is: How long will it take to take back the schools to the pre-pandemic level.
In addition to dropout problems, recovery of the academic learning loss of students who will return to schools after a year is set to appear as another challenge.
The CAMPE survey found that 69% of primary and secondary students did not attend online classes – which were broadcast on Sangsad Television, radio, and other online platforms – during the Covid-19 pandemic last year. Also, 58% of students did not have the means to join the online classes as they lacked necessary devices.
The prevailing situation seeks special attention. Special measures like expansion of the midday meals programme countrywide, increasing the amount of stipends and number of beneficiaries, according to Rashida K Chowdhury, can be helpful to check further deterioration in education situation.
The writer is the Deputy Executive Editor of The Business Standard. Our correspondents from Dinajpur and Brahmanbaria contributed to this report.