Recently, just before the schools (partially) reopened, a young boy and his father were walking in Mirpur 11. The duo, lost in their own world, was asked a few questions.
The boy informed that he is a first grader, and that he used to go to Mirpur 14 for coaching classes, every day, for roughly 18 months.
He was asked how he got there.
"By bus," the little one, named Ishan, replied.
That seemed strikingly odd.
According to government instructions, Ishan's school was taking classes online, but he had to attend coaching classes in person. And this confirmed how the government's policy to keep the boy safe from the deadly virus had failed.
So investigating the country-wide state of affairs regarding primary education during the school closure became a topic of interest: how students, teachers and parents were adapting to it and how it was impacting the students' learning.
Now that schools have reopened, teachers will try to make up for the learning loss that had occurred during the longest school closure in the world. It is, therefore, imperative to get the real picture of the learning loss.
To assess the loss, we talked to primary school students, teachers, and guardians from different unions, pourashava and metropolitan areas from across the country. A total of 50 students from the third, fourth and fifth grades, 50 percent of whom were male and 50 percent of whom were female, were given simple math and English tests.
Simultaneously, teachers and guardians were interviewed to get a comprehensive idea about their students'/children's learning loss.
A worrying picture
The students' skill test results portray a rather gloomy picture.
Among the students surveyed, 60 percent of students could not perform basic arithmetic operations like multiplication and addition. 20 percent of students from class four failed to spell their names in Bangla, while only 53 percent could spell it in English.
From class five, 95 percent of students could write their names in Bangla, but 40 percent of students forgot how to write it in English.
These are only a few of the examples from our findings.
While we were administering the skills test with some students from Natore over the phone, their teacher was whispering the answers to the students. Those 10 interviews were cancelled. The students gathered at the teacher's home for private coaching classes when we arranged the test.
It showed that some teachers are intent on covering up the sorry state of students' learning during the pandemic, as they (the former) might be held responsible for something they hardly had any control over.
In fact, we realised this at the very beginning of our study, which is why we opted for direct tests of the students instead of solely relying on teachers' and parents' views.
Many teachers, however, openly shared their take on the learning loss.
"Most students learn mainly from school. There were always students considered as academically weak students, but now their skills have deteriorated by at least 50 percent," an assistant teacher from Saturia in Manikganj said, seeking anonymity. Other teachers and many guardians echoed her thoughts.
"My sister has forgotten many things. Her skills do not match that of a fourth-grader. She is now like a third-grader," said Rehena Akhter, a university student from Sylhet, about her younger sister whom she tutors.
Another guardian from Noakhali, Shikha Akhtar, said she kept her daughter in third grade for another year as she did not learn much during the first year of the pandemic.
How the alternative measures failed
The interviews of teachers and guardians revealed why the alternatives to in-person classes, such as online teaching and 'worksheet' submission, did not deliver satisfactory results in terms of students' skill development.
The online classes were not effective in most parts of the country mainly due to the lack of electronic devices and internet connectivity, which has been in discussion for a fairly long time.
But there is much, much more to it.
"The length of online classes is 30 minutes only, which is too short to teach students. Teachers read out their lessons, and the students just listen. There is hardly any time for students to ask questions. These classes, in my opinion, do not benefit students much," said an assistant teacher from a government primary school in Meherpur Sadar.
Only 1 percent of students of her school had access to online classes, she added.
All the teachers we interviewed asked for anonymity.
Teachers also mentioned that only a small part of the students attending such classes actually paid attention to the lecture.
The biggest irony regarding online classes was that in some instances they were conducted in school classrooms. As the teachers were instructed to bring in students for online classes, and most students in the rural and suburban settings did not have access to the prerequisite electronic devices and/or internet access, teachers in many places were forced to invite students to schools so they could attend online classes using the teachers' smartphones.
In order to compensate for the classes and exams, teachers were instructed to have students submit 'worksheets' - a form of test sheet done at home. Teachers complained that most worksheets were actually written by the parents instead of students, which rendered distance learning ineffective.
As the students lost interest in studies in the absence of in-person schooling, their study-hour fell drastically.
While students used to spend four to six hours in school pre-pandemic, teachers said only around 14 to 30 percent of students studied more than an hour on a daily basis during the prolonged school closure.
In metropolitan and urban areas, students studied with their private tutors, and most parents said it was the only time when their children studied.
"Samiha lost her interest in studies and now does not want to study at all. When we force her to study, she opens her books, remains silent, and stares at the book pretending to read. All she does is watch videos on YouTube," said a parent from Dhaka.
Around 80 percent of students surveyed, according to their parents, did not study at all.
Transferred to madrassa
During the one and half year-long school closure, many parents opted to send their children to madrassas as those remained open for a much longer period due to the absence of government intervention.
"At the beginning of school closure, my daughter felt bored. She did not want to study. Later, I got her admitted to a madrassa. Consequently, she got interested in her studies again," Jaytunnesa Beauty, a parent from Noakhali said.
This is a common scenario across the country.
A headteacher from the Kishoreganj district said, "Both madrassas and government primary schools now have an increased number of students on paper. Because some students got enrolled in both institutions, and many private school students got admitted to government primary schools."
Of course, it was anticipated that students would return to schools as soon as they reopened, teachers said, especially because of the stipends the students get from the government.
Now that the schools have reopened, teachers reported that most of those students are still absent in the classrooms. In a partially resumed schooling activity, students from class one to class four are currently required to attend classes once in a week, which might have discouraged the transferees from returning, teachers assume.
According to the teachers from different places, somewhere between zero to 45 percent of students were transferred to madrassas.
Numerous kindergartens have also become collateral damage of the prolonged closure, leading to permanent shutdowns of 30 percent of the 60,000 kindergartens in Bangladesh, according to Didarul Islam, the senior Vice-Chairman of Bangladesh Kindergarten Association. The students of these institutions are also facing problems as the schools reopen.
Schools should fully resume
As we are writing this story, the news of a third grader in Gapalganj's Kotalipara upazila having tested positive for Covid-19 broke out. Classes of third grade in that school were suspended as a result.
While it is imperative to operate with extreme caution, these infections must not result in the closure of schools.
According to IEDCR data presented in Unicef's Covid-19 response website, there are 3 percent confirmed cases in the age group below 10 years so far, while the death cases for the same age group remains, statistically, negligible.
School work is the sole medium of education for many students, and its closure means the absolute end of such students' educational learning and lessons. Even intermittent schooling does not work much as primary education builds the foundation of a student's journey through education and progress.
Teachers are, currently, having a hard time bringing back students on a pre-pandemic track given the huge learning loss. However, they can give a good fight only if the schools are kept open in full swing.
In this respect, opening schools for all the classes around the week is extremely important. Or else, Ishan and his classmates will keep resorting to alternative ways of learning in-person while others from remote areas will keep losing necessary skills, thus affecting their future. Also, many will drop out in the process.
According to the 'Covid-19 Response Plan for Education Sector' published by the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education in May 2020, Bangladesh experiences around 18 percent of dropout at the primary level. The report feared that during the shutdown of schools, the dropout rate was likely to increase, especially among girls and children from socio-economically disadvantaged families.