"Do you know that many of the schools are already closed? Why don't you request the principal to close our school too? We are distressed!" said a parent, just two weeks back in mid-March.
During the first two weeks of March, it was perfect to go to the school, take classes and see students coming in regularly, although I could very well understand the situation in China, Thailand, Singapore and some other ASEAN countries and the closing of educational institutions in those regions due to the
Everything was available in the daily newspaper.
There was a clear tension and dilemma among the school authorities, teachers and parents on the issue of closing schools, as it involves many students' future education.
This is especially true for a country like Bangladesh, where the government, development partners and non-government organisations put their effort for decades to make education accessible for millions of poverty-stricken people and ensure maximum girls' enrollment in primary school.
It was a tough task to close the institutions, but the government did it because of public safety.
This, however, has given rise to some questions. How will we pay the price for this pandemic, and who will be the biggest sufferer in the education sector?
In a recent report, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) said that schools and other educational institutions across 188 countries saw closure due to the novel coronavirus. This closure affected around 1,543,446,152 learners, that comprises around 89.5% of the total enrolled pupils.
The number is higher, I assume, as many of the educational institutions in Bangladesh, for example: the religious schools, are not registered and the number of students are unknown. Their number, without any doubt, is huge.
These students come from a day-wage earning families and many are already prone to dropping out due to financial problems.
From local newspaper stories and practical experience, it can be assumed that the pandemic will force a critical number of the population to lose their jobs and endure poverty.
This is directly linked to the schooling of these vulnerable learners, as many of them may fail to manage the tuition fees and associated cost for their education. It will equally create a pressure on the educators trying to secure their salaries on time.
The World Economic Forum recently warned that coronavirus fallout may be worse for women than men and we are worried especially for the girls, who will be the first to drop out.
Correlating with the situation in Ebola-affected developing countries, we can assume many school-going students will drop out, leading to rise in early marriage, sexual exploitation and modern day slavery. Many of them might shift to income-generating activities to support their family.
Now, as we discuss these, did we ever have a thought on an emergency plan for education? Did we ever thought of such days where we all are staying apart at a critical moment when many of our students are expecting to complete their academic year?
Given the uniqueness of the current circumstances, the answer is "no".
Many academic institutions are now conducting virtual classes over Zoom, Jitsi Meet, Skype and other internet-based platforms, some others have printed the learning materials and emailed them to the parents; but the number of such institutions are quite low.
That is because of the lack of infrastructure and resources. In addition, some teachers are also not capable of handling such virtual classes, despite the availability of resources.
This inefficiency reminds me of my participation in the Asia Europe Foundation's 15th ClassNet conference in 2019. The topic was the role and readiness of the teachers for sustainable development education and the usage of artificial intelligence in conducting classes.
The conference indulged us in various ways to teach our students on sustainable development and how we can use numerous technological tools and artificial intelligence in conducting classes. It also addressed the issue of conducting classes with robots or without a teacher.
The theme of the conference - our "readiness" as an educator - is crucial today.
The conference was trying to challenge us to think whether we are prepared to tackle the future of education.
Maybe at that time we did not think much of it but today, many of us are now feeling anguished thinking about our students' future.
As the days go by, many critical questions are inevitably arising in our mind; will the students come back to the institutions? Will they be capable of remembering what they learned in the past? Will they be mentally fit to resume education? Will we be able to minimise the learning gap because of the pandemic?
Many initiatives have already been taken up by the government to keep the students on track.
The Bangladesh government started telecasting high school level classes through "Shangshad Television", dedicated for telecasting the national assembly. Meanwhile, primary level classes will be telecast soon.
Despite these initiatives, many of the students will remain out of the reach just because they might not have access to a television.
Investing in business, education curriculum, content and all other existing traditional improvement measures will not be enough to address the coming challenges to education.
Today, while we are talking about "re-arranging" human lifestyle, inventing medicine to tackle coronavirus, finding ways for the economy, business losses and unemployment to recover, we should also talk about how to "re-arrange" the existing processes of education.
It is time that we develop regular alternatives to teachers, so that the learners themselves can be more autonomous in tackling coronavirus like challenges in the future.
These measures of sustainable and alternative education processes are immediately necessary for everyone, especially for people of low-income countries.
While we seek to live, we also should seek to live longer and only sustainable education can ensure that.
The author is an educator and human rights activist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.