Unable to decide whether the schools should be opened or not, we seem to be in perplexity about our next course of action. Articles have already been penned by academics and mavens both in favour of and against reopening schools. Especially after Education Minister Dipu Moni's instruction to begin preparations for resuming classes at schools on a limited scale, the issue has turned into a cause célèbre. My two cents about this issue is that schools should be opened only if proper precautions and certain steps are taken.
There is no denying school closure continuing for almost a year was an essential step in the wake of the virus outbreak, but it cannot be extended taking the far-reaching blowbacks into account.
Firstly, the scourge of school closure has already dealt a heavy blow to our education system. According to the United Nations, the pandemic has disrupted the education systems to a very alarming extent, affecting students in more than 190 countries. As of 12 January 2021, approximately 825 million learners are affected badly because of school closures, according to reports by UNICEF.
Moreover, because of the closure of schools and other learning spaces, 94% of the world's student population are affected, the rate is higher -- up to 99% -- in low and lower-middle-income countries.
Secondly, such disruptions are limiting the access of cross-sections of people to education and widening discrimination in the education sector. Despite the fact that online education programmes are underway, learning during the pandemic could not be made inclusive as a significant portion of our population especially those in abject poverty do not have any access to online education owing to the unavailability of the devices and modern amenities necessary for attending the virtual classes.
Consequently, many students from rural areas are at the risk of falling behind. This discrimination will also put the educational prospect of those children in further jeopardy since such a lengthy gap will knock the wind out of their (low-income families) sails, which will eventually push the drop-out rate higher.
The third point is the most staggering one. As schools are not functioning, many parents living in the villages are finding it more appropriate to marry off their teenage girls. As a result, the child-marriage rate is creeping up, which may turn all the aspirations related to girls' education into a pipedream. As it transpired, a total of 778 child marriage incidents, of which 683 were prevented straightaway, was reported between January and September of last year by Brac's Community Empowerment Programme (CEP).
To cap it all, if the closure is continued for a few more months, it will slow down children's overall growth along with many other knock-on consequences. On the one hand, children are now confined within the four walls of their houses, on the other hand, their screen-time has also increased because of the absence of exuberant physical activity.
The aforementioned points, compounded further by diminishing socialisation, could morph an amicable kid into a gauche one. If schools are reopened, the children will get the chance to cut loose occasionally and fraternise with other children, which will definitely help ensure their mental development.
UNESCO, in one of its reports, has highlighted some of the challenges of school closures where they claimed factors such as pandemic-induced social isolation, the inability of parents to calibrate and validate learning, and increased exposure of children to the violence, altercations and exploitation going on unabated at home will have serious consequences on a child's health.
However, we must flip the side and consider every nook and cranny of this situation. It is of utmost importance that we reopen the schools, but at the same time, we will also have to think about the safety of the students. The concerned authorities must map out proper plans with scrupulous attention to detail and work their way around to hitting the sweet spot between maximising the learning scopes (by reopening schools) and minimising the risk factors.
At the very outset, even before opening the educational institutions again, awareness campaigns and sessions should be arranged with the intent to educate the pedagogues, parents and philomaths on different safety measures to fight coronavirus and follow health guidelines so that no one gets butterflies in their stomach before embarking on a challenging journey. Ideas like social distancing in a classroom, frequent hand-washing and using masks must be expounded and students should be enlightened about all these to iron out the kinks.
In this regard, the 'Safe Back to School' project by 15 international NGOs including Save the Children, Brac, World Vision and Plan International could come in handy and the government should work collaboratively with these NGOs to ensure the safe return of the learners to schools.
Riding on the hands-on experience and expertise of these NGOs, the school authorities should be instructed to take all kinds of preparations to ensure two things – hand washing and masks so that the risk of contamination at schools could be kept to a bare minimum. In the meantime, the government should advise the school authorities to devise their own plan of action and come up with ideas to divide the classes into two or more groups and put a shift-wise routine in place so that social distance can be maintained while imparting knowledge.
Twelve months into the pandemic, the virus is still on the loose and making headlines. And the truth is that there is no respite in sight except for the vaccines. Since the government has already kicked off the vaccination programme in our country, things will start looking up very soon hopefully. Taking advantage of that situation, we should seriously go over the plan of reopening schools to bring the students who are drifting far off the learning grid back on the learning track. However, teachers and other staff of the schools should be prioritised for vaccination. If all of them are vaccinated early, it will help expedite the process of reopening schools.
And most importantly, when everything else is going on in full swing, why should the students be kept away from the classrooms? Even the businesses and other informal sectors are striving hard to turn the corner riding out the gloomy economic prognosis. Then, why not the education sector? After all, it is a better idea to keep the schools open than the restaurants, salons and recreational facilities and a fortiori we must not forget is the fact that the students are clean slates who, if not taken care of, may get involved in something detrimental, miss the mark as far as education is concerned and go off the rails.
Md Morshedul Alam Mohabat is a philomath
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.