Educational institutions have been shut in Bangladesh for a long time. During this closure, the government has been trying to reach and teach learners using some alternative mediums – television, radio, mobile network and online.But the ground level reality is that we have not been able to reach all students – especially the underprivileged ones – through these alternative mediums.
This has been the case in most of the developing countries; Bangladesh is no exception in the face of such hard reality. UN organisations like Unicef and Unesco have recommended opening up the educational institutions.
If we consider Thailand, Vietnam and some other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, they lowered their Covid-19 cases, opened their schools, but when infection rates spiked again, they had to shut down their schools. These countries experimented by opening up and shutting down their schools, but we kept it shut all these months. We did not even try to open up on a limited scale, learn crucial lessons from it and then open up in a phased manner, taking all health-hygiene related precautions.
As per WHO guidelines, educational institutions can be opened if the rate of Covid-19 case identification is below five percent. In Bangladesh, the rate has been below five percent for quite some time. But we have continued to extend the closure of our educational institutions all these months despite a growing body of global research evidence that children and young people have been least affected by the pandemic.
It is important to note that a crisis of quality education has always been there. During this period of pandemic, the crisis of quality education for all has continuously been aggravating due to long closure of educational institutions.
In the developed world, whether the schools are shut or open, they have the capacity to reach and teach students online and thus continue their academic activities to a large extent. But a section of our students do not have the opportunity and resources to avail the alternative medium like Sangsad TV, Radio, let alone online facilities. The hard reality is that they need four essential elements to avail online classes: uninterrupted electricity and internet connectivity, affordable devices and data. This is where a good number of students have been facing challenges.
Beside the issue of non-stop electricity and internet connectivity – ensuring which are responsibilities of the state – data and appropriate devices are also expensive items for a large section of our population who are struggling to ensure basic necessities like food, shelter and medicare during the pandemic. A research by PPRC carried out in October 2020 found that low-income people during the months of the pandemic couldn't even buy protein food like milk and meat.
A "Rapid Response Survey" by Education Watch carried out in April-May 2020 brought out four major concerns as the consequence of Covid-19 and continuous closure of schools: increase in the number of dropouts, child labour, early marriage, and malnutrition. Besides, even though most of the primary level schools are government-run, a majority of our secondary schools are private, and thousands of teachers have been suffering from insecurity because of irregular or no salary during school closure although many of them are supported from GoB's funds.
Keeping all these in view, Education Watch conducted another Survey in November-December 2020 to learn from stakeholders their opinion about alternatives. The Survey found that around 75 percent of the students and teachers want to get back to classes, while around 76 percent of the guardians want schools to reopen as soon as possible. Even the Upazila education administration expressed the opinion that schools may be re-opened by taking all precautionary health measures.
Considering these aspects, we would like to urge the government to consider reopening of school in areas where Covid-19 cases are lower, for example, haor, hilly and remote locations, where the students have been more deprived from education. Schools may be reopened on a limited scale in these localities but of course with all necessary precautions.
We have observed that the members of our parliament have demanded reopening of schools. Here our proposal is – instead of opening up the schools en masse, the process should be based on area-wise covid cases and adequate health and hygiene preparations. We have seen a positive response from the government in this regard. Concerned ministries have recently asked all the educational institutions to prepare for reopening.
We expect that the local level Coordination Meetings, regularly convened by the Upazila administration, should be specifically assigned to monitor the progress at the local level in consultation with local education administration because for reopening of school adequate preparation, precautionary health and hygiene measures will be big challenges. We already know that in many of our schools, WASH facilities are inadequate and we need to work on that. Besides, we must ensure crores of masks at least for children and teachers. Local NGOs and volunteer groups may be asked to assist in this regard.
We know both the Ministry of Education (MoE) and the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education (MoPME) have prepared "Guidelines" for reopening of schools and a detailed "Recovery and Response Plan" for post Covid-19 period. We need adequate resources and proper monitoring for implementation of such a plan.
It is important to note that even though many sectors received government's stimulus packages during the pandemic, the education sector is yet to receive such incentives. In the current situation, under the stimulus package, necessary health precautionary materials for the teachers and students have to be procured by schools. Given the 'new normal scenario,' we may need to do some online and offline schooling, particularly in the urban areas. For the students who can join online education, we need to provide it continuously without any interruption but for those who cannot join online courses, they should be provided with the opportunities of attending face to face classes.
A stimulus package for the teachers is the need of the hour, since the offline and online classes will require extra hours, additional teachers and extra efforts from them. To fill the teacher gap, retired, but capable teachers may be hired until the situation improves. There will be necessity for some additional payment which may be covered from the stimulus package.
Finally, I strongly believe that Bangladesh will be successful in curbing the Covid-19 crisis and reviving our economy as before; but if education is continuously in crisis, if the majority of a generation is deprived, this will not only increase inequality but we may end up losing a generation from quality education and this loss may continue from generation to generation. We need appropriate strategies, adequate resources, proper monitoring and collective efforts to combat the challenges on Covid-19 in education.
Rasheda K. Choudhury is a Bangladeshi development practitioner and former Advisor to a Caretaker Government.