Last March, marking a year of school closures of varying lengths around the world, Unicef Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a press statement: "We cannot afford to move into year two of limited or even no in-school learning for these children. No effort should be spared to keep schools open, or prioritise them in reopening plans."

At the time, we learned that Bangladesh was the only country in South Asia and among the 14 countries globally that had kept schools fully closed amid the pandemic. Fast forward six months, and Unicef in a new analysis, released as summer break comes to end in many parts of the world, reported that for an estimated eight million students worldwide, the wait for their first day of in-person learning in school life has been over a year and counting, as they live in places where schools have been closed throughout the pandemic. Half this number, almost four million, is made up of first-time learners from Bangladesh, Unicef reported, where we now have the second-longest COVID-19 school closure in the world.

The general theme of the September report is to highlight the importance of a child's first day of school - described as a landmark moment for the youngest students and their parents around the world - that has been delayed due to COVID-19 for an estimated 140 million young minds due to current school closures.

"The first day of school is a landmark moment in a child's life - setting them off on a life-changing path of personal learning and growth. Most of us can remember countless minor details - what clothes we wore, our teacher's name, who we sat next to. But for millions of children, that important day has been indefinitely postponed," said Unicef Executive Director Henrietta Fore. "As classes resume in many parts of the world, millions of first graders have been waiting to see the inside of a classroom for over a year. Millions more may not see one at all this school term. For the most vulnerable, their risk of never stepping into a classroom in their lifetime is skyrocketing."

The first grade sets up the building blocks for all future learning, with introductions to reading, writing, and math. It's also a period when in-person learning helps children gain independence, adapt to new routines, and develop meaningful relationships with teachers and students. In-person learning also enables teachers to identify and address learning delays, mental health issues, and abuse that could negatively affect children's well-being.

There goes a year...or two

In 2020, schools globally were fully closed for an average of 79 teaching days. However, for 168 million students, after the pandemic began, schools were shuttered for nearly the entire year. Even now, many children are facing an unprecedented second year of disruption to their education. The associated consequences of school closures - learning loss, mental distress, missed vaccinations, and heightened risk of drop out, child labour, and child marriage - will be felt by many children, especially the youngest learners in critical development stages.

While countries worldwide are taking some actions to provide remote learning, at least 29 percent of primary students are not being reached. In addition to lack of assets for remote learning, the youngest children may not be able to participate due to a lack of support using the technology, a poor learning environment, pressure to do household chores, or being forced to work.

Most countries have slipped in and out of school closures as the pandemic has progressed around the world. Bangladeshi authorities generally would convey the feeling they've dealt fairly well with COVID-19 - at least headline figures would suggest so. Yet prolonged closure of educational institutions throughout the pandemic has affected over 40 million students from the pre-primary to the higher education level. The longer children remain out of school, the less likely they are to return as they face increased risks of violence, child labour and child marriage.

"Schools closures and lack of in-person teaching and learning activities have an extremely serious impact not only on children's education but also on their health, protection and psychosocial well-being," said Tomoo Hozumi, Unicef Representative in Bangladesh, as their latest report was released. "Marginalised children are suffering the heaviest losses which push them further into poverty and inequalities now and in the future. It is crucial that we prioritize a safe reopening of schools and invest in remediation of learning losses for those most affected. Our decisions today will influence these children throughout their entire lives."

Studies have shown that positive school experiences during this transition period are a predictor of children's future social, emotional and educational outcomes. At the same time, children who fall behind in learning during the early years often stay behind for the remaining time they spend in school, and the gap widens over the years. The number of years of education a child receives also directly affects their future earnings.

Unless mitigation measures are implemented, the World Bank estimates a loss of $10 trillion in earnings over time for this entire generation of students. Existing evidence shows the cost of addressing learning gaps are lower and more effective when they are tackled earlier, and that investments in education support economic recovery, growth and prosperity.

Unicef urges governments to reopen schools for in-person learning as soon as possible, and to provide a comprehensive recovery response for students. Together with the World Bank and Unesco, Unicef is calling for governments to focus on three key priorities for recovery in schools:

I) Targeted programmes to bring all children and youth back in school where they can access tailored services to meet their learning, health, psychosocial well-being, and other needs;

II) Effective remedial learning to help students catch up on lost learning;

III) Support for teachers to address learning losses and incorporate digital technology into their teaching.

"Your first day of school is a day of hope and possibility - a day for getting off to a good start. But not all children are getting off to a good start. Some children are not even starting at all," said Fore. "We must reopen schools for in-person learning as soon as possible, and we must immediately address the gaps in learning this pandemic has already created. Unless we do, some children may never catch up."

Unicef Bangladesh is working with the government towards safely reopening schools. This includes development of guidelines, including on safety measures such as children and teachers masking up and washing their hands with soap and water in school. Unicef also helps communicate with children, parents and educators to build their confidence that it is possible to return to school safely.

In the following weeks, globally Unicef has committed to continue to mobilise its partners and the public to prevent this "education crisis from becoming an education catastrophe". Online and offline campaigns will rally world leaders, teachers, and parents around a common cause: reopen schools for in-person learning as soon as possible. The future of the world's most vulnerable children is at stake, and Unicef is mandated by the UN to provide humanitarian and developmental aid to the world's children.

High-risk environment

It is a quite tricky affair of course. While some places have shown schools can remain open during the pandemic even amidst virus surges, there can be no doubt that they represent a high-risk environment - particularly in densely-populated settings. Researchers say that if schools are opened before community transmission reaches low levels, cases will surge.

Schools can be high-risk places, says Young June Choe, a paediatrician and epidemiologist at Hallym University in Chuncheon, South Korea whose research has been published in Nature. Children are often crammed into poorly ventilated rooms for eight hours or more, he says. And there's a lot of mixing, because children come from across the neighbourhood, some on public transport, and often with their parents in tow.

Earlier in the pandemic, it appeared that the virus might affect children differently from adults. Because children had milder symptoms, it was assumed they might be less infectious. But now there is evidence that children can spread the virus to other people, especially those living in the same household. Several studies show that once children are infected, they are no less infectious than adults.

"Some countries in Asia, particularly South Korea, provide a good model for how schools can provide face-to-face teaching during the pandemic," Zoë Hyde, an epidemiologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth, told Nature magazine.

Losing $114 billion?

It has been suggested that the almost intangible nature of what is being lost is preventing a sense of urgency on the part of the authorities. Unless you're able to put a number on it, or make it measurable, you'll need to be lucky to receive policy prioritisation. The World Bank has come closest to quantifying the loss to Bangladesh from its prolonged school closure, for which they ran a simulation - an exercise where different scenarios are tested by factoring in different variables. By the WB's estimation, since educational institutions closed in March 2020, nearly 38 million students in Bangladesh (slightly lower than Unicef's equivalent figure) have missed out on the opportunity to receive proper learning and interact with their peers, which has affected their education experience.

To help students deal with the adverse impacts of school closures, the government introduced remote learning through television, mobile phones, radio, and the Internet. But not all students have access to these resources. The World Bank study finds that access to these alternative learning methods and their uptake has been low. Of the surveyed school children (aged 5-15), less than 50 percent have access to radios, computers, and televisions, respectively. Nearly all of them have access to mobile phones, but many don't have access to the Internet.

The study also found a digital divide between rich and poor households. When compared with the richest families, 9.2 percent of the poorest had access to televisions vs 91 percent for the richest. A similar trend exists across the other alternative learning mediums. Another survey shows that of the 21 percent of households with access to online learning programs, only 2 percent used them.

Pre-pandemic estimates showed 58% of Bangladeshi children did not achieve minimum reading proficiency by grade 5. It's estimated this figure will increase to 76% during school closures.

Pre-pandemic estimates based on the World Bank's Human Capital Index-2020 show that a Bangladeshi child starting school at age 4 expects to complete on average 10.2 years of school by age 18. But a more accurate estimation is the Learning Adjusted Years of Schooling (LAYS) figure, as it considers the quality of learning received by students during this period, which for this age group is around 6 years. Based on the simulation tool developed by the World Bank Education Global Practice, the COVID-19 induced school closures is estimated to result in a loss of between 0.5 and 0.9 years of learning-adjusted schooling for an average student. Considering an intermediate scenario of 9 months of school closure, LAYS could drop to 5.3 years.

Pre-pandemic estimates also showed that 58 percent of Bangladeshi children did not achieve the minimum reading proficiency by the end of grade 5. It's estimated that this figure will increase to 76 percent during the school closures.

The COVID-19 pandemic will likely translate into a substantial long-term economic cost. Quantifying the loss of learning in terms of labour market returns, the average Bangladeshi student will face a reduction of around $335 in yearly earnings, which represents almost 6.8 percent of their annual income. Aggregated for all students in Bangladesh and projected 10 years into the future when all graduates have entered the labour market, this would cost the country's economy up to $114 billion in GDP at net present value. The current size of the Bangladesh economy is an estimated $353 billion, as per the IMF in their latest World Economic Outlook.

The World Bank study's author, Education specialist Tashmina Rahman at their Dhaka office, offers four suggestions to mitigate the losses due to school closures caused by the pandemic:

1) Ensure access to learning tools: The Government of Bangladesh has taken swift decisions with the multi-modal remote learning delivery. Now it's important to make these platforms fully functional through content development and mass delivery. Since digital learning may not be a feasible option for the poorest families, other methods may be employed including physical learning packages, mobile-based lessons or face-to-face classes maintaining social distance and protocols.

2) Offer effective remedial learning opportunities: Remedial education to help students catch up when schools re-open coupled with preparing teachers to teach at the right level will also be necessary to mitigate the losses sustained during the period of school closure. To ensure this, the first step is to assess student learning when they return to classrooms and to identify learning loss through formative assessment on literacy and numeracy competencies.

3) Reduce dropouts: We must reduce additional dropouts and absenteeism once schools open, through stipends, safe school reopening and communication campaigns. Stipends will help to bring back and retain children from poorer families. Parents and communities will play an important role in building confidence and improving the school re-opening process. Communication campaigns through different mediums will be essential in ensuring that learning continues while schools are closed and when they re-open.

4) Leverage partnerships: Finally, we need to leverage partnerships between government, non-government, private sector, and civil society in managing education delivery during and after the crisis. It will be important to continue to collaborate and bring expertise together in finding solutions to ensure learning continues for the poorest children, prepare teachers for post-pandemic classrooms, develop effective remedial education model and bring additional resources to build back better and support the infrastructures for a resilient education system.

"These actions can be the first step towards creating a resilient education system and will potentially kickstart the road to recovering from losses sustained during the pandemic," Tashmina says.

Hear a bell?

Despite some positive signs on the Corona front, more voices being raised, and even the prime minister weighing in over the past seven-ten days, the week ended on Thursday with the news that government has once again decided to extend the ongoing closure of all educational institutions across Bangladesh in light of the Covid-19 situation. As such, the closure that was supposed to end on August 31 has been extended again till September 11.

The Education Ministry, in a notification announced that all secondary and higher secondary level educational institutions, including Ebtedayee and Qawmi madrasahs, would remain closed until this period.

It said as the country's coronavirus situation is yet to be brought under control, this decision was taken in consultation with the National Technical Advisory Committee on Covid-19 to ensure the health and overall safety of students, teachers, staff and guardians.

Bangladesh has seen a rapid drop in the Covid-19 infection rate recently, which led the government to lift a nationwide strict lockdown on August 11 and reopen offices and shops.

Under the circumstances, Education Minister Dipu Moni earlier in the week had said educational institutions will be reopened in phases if this current trend continues.

"If it continues, we can reopen the education institutes step by step," she said.

State Minister for Primary and Mass Education Zakir Hossain also said: "We can't reopen the schools all of a sudden. We have taken all-out preparations and if the prime minister orders us today, we are prepared to reopen the schools from tomorrow." The authorities also issued guidelines as part of preparations to reopen the educational institutions, fuelling expectations further.

It came after Primi Minister Sheikh Hasina, on August 18, directed the authorities to take a "swift decision" on the reopening of schools and educational institutions, taking into account the state of the coronavirus pandemic and the vaccination exercise in the country. The directive came during a meeting with secretaries from various government department, and was relayed to the press by Cabinet Secretary Khandker Anwarul Islam.

"There has been a detailed discussion on opening educational institutions. After the discussion, the prime minister instructed that schools be opened as soon as a comfortable scenario arises," said Anwarul.

Still no sign of a school bell ringing.

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