Farzana is a student of class four in a government primary school. Her father passed away two years ago. Since then, her mother has been taking care of the family by working as a house maid.
As the lockdown began, her mother's main concern turned to feeding her children. Buying a smartphone or getting a new television to let Fazana attending television or online classes amid the Covid-19 pandemic was more than a luxury to her.
Sariha is also a student of class four. But as she comes from an affluent family, she has been attending the Sangsad TV classes. She has joined two Whatsapp groups where her teachers share their resources. Sariha spends time doing homework, learning new lessons from Whatsapp, Youtube and Facebook.
According to Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights-1948, both Sariha and Farzana have the right to education. Bangladesh also has a constitutional obligation for ensuring "Education for All" following the 4th goal of Sustainable Development Goals.
But the education system in the country has been exposed to some major inequalities due to this Covid-19 situation. Both Farzana and Sariha represent different scenarios of learning at this time. If we are talking about equal rights to education, have we achieved it?
Now, let's look at the initiatives taken by African states during the Ebola lockdown of 2014-16. The school systems were failing over there too. Children were turning sick, experiencing sexual assaults and even in some cases, higher pregnancy rates. And we are talking about five million children who were out of school in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
With the government's bold initiatives, they kept the learning process ongoing by broadcasting educational content in 41 radio stations and national television channels. This strategy was also used during the Afghan civil war. Mobile applications like MoMaths were introduced for practising maths.
Governments from Africa and Europe also have partnerships with private telecommunication companies for offering free child support call centres and access to digital contents.
Infrastructural support is a big factor over here. While mobile companies have been branding 4G and 4.5G, the actual speed outside Dhaka is poor, according to a study done by BTRC. Even if many families can afford smartphones, the internet package prices and infrastructural weakness is a barrier to digital education.
Unlike Africa or Europe, we do not have free educational content sites that do not cost net packages. We have free Facebook from several operators, but it appears free educational sites do not bring much branding opportunities for mobile operators.
And they hardly thought about it.
Returning to Farzana, her mother's concern about food might be mitigated by the Primary Education Board's step to provide Tk1,900 to the students who receive government stipends. Again, this stipend is limited to those who are regular in school and have not failed the previous year. Ultimately, this excludes twenty-one children of Farzana's class. What will happen to them?
Now, let's assume that Farzana is doing her homework by keeping contact with her teacher through SMS or through any available medium she can use. She will keep doing it till the school reopens. But as the school reopens, are the teachers going to start teaching from where they stopped in March 16? Or, are they going to continue based on the online materials they've given?
Whatever the choice, it will create boredom for some or leave behind some of the students. We might even consider taking extra classes. Again, the Prime Minister said that if the situation remains similar, schools might be closed till September. So, that makes up to five months gap in education. Is it possible to cover those five months with extra classes?
Some sources are claiming that the institutions might open after the Eid if the situation gets better. That would be excellent. But are we prepared for reopening schools? Have the teachers been provided with enough training to give mental support to children? Yes, a good number of children will need mental support to get back to their regular studies.
We hardly address the mental health care of children. But, that's a major need. African countries arranged training for teachers and also appointed health workers in schools during the post-Ebola situations. Nigeria had issued orders to train at least two staffs from each school by health workers.
Singapore monitored every school children during the SARS breakout. They successfully pulled out 67 cases, preventing a larger pandemic at that time. Are we even ready to monitor our children?
A lot of ideas could have been implemented. The education ministry could have done the baseline and end-line survey to track the progress of Sangsad TV's educational content telecast. You cannot just say that your project has been a success without understanding how it impacted the masses.
Besides, maybe the government needs to revise their idea about digital Bangladesh. The term 'Digital Bangladesh' itself should include access to remote learning for all the students. For example, the Panjab government had taken an initiative of distributing free smartphones among college students in 2019.
Access to Information (A2i) has been launching and funding a lot of projects. They can focus some projects on child education and mental healthcare. The government should jointly work with the private organisations for creating better infrastructure and ensuring the proper 'Digital Bangladesh' for both Sariha and Farzana.
The saddest part is that they both will be judged with the same question papers in board examinations. If we do not take adequate steps, the achievement gap between children like Sariha and Farzana will keep increasing.
The author is an educator and assistant teacher from J. Bottoli Government Primary School and a fellow from Teach For Bangladesh.