School closure that began in March last year has been extended till the end of this January. What happens after then?
Policymakers are in a fix struggling to strike a balance between the risk to life and health of students and teachers and the learning losses and mental stress and anxiety of students.
Clearly, the closure cannot continue indefinitely. Neighbouring countries in South Asia have decided to re-open schools in January this year, albeit step by step and allowing local discretion.
Looking ahead, given the uncertainty of the course of the pandemic, there has to be a contingency planning keeping in view different options and fulfilling some essential conditions.
The essential conditions are – attention to health and safety of students and teachers, recovery plan for learning losses, mitigation of increased disparities, and adapting measures to local conditions rather than a "one size fits all" approach.
The main approach in recovery of learning losses needs identifying are behind, assessing the extent of losses and giving them special help by teachers.
Schools and teachers, who are used to a one-way communication and just go through the lessons in the syllabus, are not prepared to offer the kind of instruction required by students now.
Teachers need guidance and support. Many schools will need additional teaching personnel who could be volunteer teachers' assistants, who also will need orientation and guidance. They can be recruited and deployed in cooperation with the more experienced education NGOs that have demonstrated their capacity for effective work in education.
The planning for school reopening, ensuring safety and health measures and helping students recoup losses have to be done for each school within the broad guidelines of the education authorities. There is also a need for local planning for each upazila based on the local circumstances.
Contingency planning, adjusting and responding to specific situations, becomes important based on a continuing critical evaluation of conditions in each upazila and the educational institutions in the upazila. This responsive and flexible approach is something the normal government mechanism cannot handle well. The NGO networks, such as the Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE), Bangladesh ECD Network (BEN) and Bangladesh Health Watch should be pressed into service. These networks are our social capital.
A mechanism, a working group involving the education authorities, technical personnel and NGOs for the education recovery planning for each upazila need to be made functional.
Reopening the school safely and implementing a recovery plan in each school will require extra resources. Some Tk66,000 crore is in the education budget in the current year, a part of which for regular activities will not be used due to the pandemic. It would be reasonable to redirect 10% of this budget in FY20 and FY21 to an education recovery plan.
A certain amount, at least Tk10 crore for each of 500 upazilas and thanas (distributed proportionately by student number), can be allocated to support primary and secondary schools carry out their recovery plan. Schools not covered by MPO-support also should be assisted, since at least one-third of the school students are not currently supported by the government.
Restarting schools and recovery of the education system is a national challenge. All who can contribute should be encouraged to join in meeting this challenge with the government taking the lead.
The writer is professor emeritus at Brac University.