While the far-reaching impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are affecting almost every aspect of life, one area hit particularly hard across almost every jurisdiction that has experienced some level of infection is education. In response to the unprecedented educational challenges created by school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 90 per cent of countries have implemented some form of remote learning policy.
With millions of students forced to adopt new skills (such as using smartphones or other remote learning equipment) just to be engaged in the process of learning, and many unable to do so for economic or infrastructural (poor internet connectivity), the element of inequality has been conspicuously introduced into the process itself. It stands to logic that this may well now lead to inevitably unequal outcomes.
The Bangladesh government decided to close all academic institutions, including primary to higher level, and dormitories, from March 17, 2020 after the first cases of the novel coronavirus were identified in the country on March 8. Even coaching centres across the country were directed to close, with strict monitoring mechanisms put in place from the central to local level, to ensure the decision was implemented properly.
Around 42 million children in the country continue to be affected by COVID-19 school closures, leaving students with little option but to rely on remote learning. However, not all students have access to digital technology and in many cases, students find virtual classes fall short of their expectations and learning needs.
In a focus group discussion organised by UNICEF in December, students representing all eight divisions in Bangladesh unanimously agreed that while remote learning was helping them remain in touch with their academic studies, it remained fraught with many challenges.
The focus group participants agreed that the majority of students from rural areas and marginalized socio-economic backgrounds are unable to access remote learning opportunities through television, radio, internet and smartphones as many do not have access to these devices.
A UNICEF-International Telecommunication Union (ITU) report found that 63 percent of Bangladesh's school-age children have no internet access at home. The findings underscore the need to close the digital divide and address underlying inequalities that disenfranchise marginalized communities and perpetuate cycles of intergenerational poverty.
To make remote education more accessible, students recommended lowering internet data tariffs and providing free access to learning platforms.
Many students appreciated the quality of the learning broadcasts on national television (BTV) and recommended modules be extended to higher secondary level students so that all students can benefit.
UNICEF supported the Government of Bangladesh to develop and implement a strategy on remote learning using multiple platforms including television, radio, internet and mobile phones to cover all streams of education - formal, non-formal, religious and technical education.
"To reach marginalized students and create more equitable access to remote learning, UNICEF is facilitating learning using basic mobile phones and text messages instead of smartphones," said Iqbal Hossain, Education Specialist, UNICEF Bangladesh.
"However, we continue to face challenges as some children do not have access to basic mobile phones. UNICEF is working with the Government of Bangladesh to deliver a printed learning package to these children's doorsteps, so no child is left behind," Hossain added.
Clearly the crisis will continue to have what on balance can only be viewed as an adverse effect on teaching and learning through the entire 2020-21 school year, regardless of when classrooms reopen and what type of remote learning practices remain in place. And there is no guarantee either that the 2021-22 academic session can be fully salvaged yet.
Across countries, the most common approach to replace in-person classroom lessons was digital instruction, which was used by 42 percent of countries for pre-primary education, 74 percent of countries for primary education and 77 percent of countries for upper secondary education. Many countries have also developed broadcast curricula (television- and radio-based), especially for primary and lower secondary students.
Globally, at least 463 million students, or 31 percent of students from pre-primary to upper secondary schools, cannot be reached due to either a lack of policies supporting digital and broadcast remote learning or a lack of the household assets needed to receive digital or broadcast instruction. With at least 49 percent, Eastern and Southern Africa had the highest minimum share of students who cannot be reached. Latin America and the Caribbean have the lowest share of students who cannot be reached - 9 percent - but again, this does not mean we can conclude that 91 percent of children were reached.
South Asia accounts for nearly a third of all the students who cannot be reached by digital means, with 147 million of them resident in the region. Just over 60 percent of the students in the region can potentially be reached.
Unless access costs decrease and quality of access increases in all countries, the gap in education quality, and thus socioeconomic equality will be further exacerbated. The digital divide could become more extreme if educational access is dictated by access to the latest technologies.
In Bangladesh, following the sudden shutdown of schools across the country, most students and teachers are currently engaged in some form of remote learning. But while the transition to online learning has been relatively smooth for urbanites or districts in which students already have their own electronic devices, the digital divide has reared its head elsewhere. This has raised questions about unequal access to functioning devices, adequate Wi-Fi, and other remote-learning essentials.
Beyond accounting for the possibly severe mental anguishes suffered by students, experts engaged by organisations such as Unicef and the World Bank are asking teachers to remain mindful of 3 particular factor as likely to influence students and school communities in the coming months:
• Trauma: For some students, sudden school closures occurred alongside other potentially traumatic events, including family income and job losses, health crises, and a high overall level of disruption.
• Loss of enrichment opportunities: Students following stay-at-home directives are unable to access enrichment opportunities such as field trips and face-to-face tutoring sessions.
• Reduced access to educational resources: For families focused on survival during the shutdown period, concerns about housing, food, healthcare, and jobs may take priority over student learning.
Ready to Return
More than 60 per cent respondents, excluding teachers and guardians, of an online survey opined that the schools of the country should be reopened within a short time.
The Citizen's Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh conducted the survey titled "Finally schools will reopen: How much we are prepared" from February 17 to 22, this year.
A total of 1960 people -- 576 (29.4 per cent) guardians, 370 teachers (18.9 percent) and 1014 others (51.7 per cent) gave their opinions in the survey, reports UNB.
Among the guardians, 54.7 per cent have said that they don't feel safe to send their children to schools now, according to the online survey.
Besides, 86.8 per cent guardians said they are aware about the government's Covid-19 health guidelines and 50.7 per cent of them opined that their children won't be able to maintain the health guidelines at schools.
Among the teachers, 68 percent opined that their institutions have the capacity to ensure health guidelines.
Also, 69 percent teachers think government cash aid was a must for reopening schools with health guidelines.
Not surprisingly, 67 percent of guardians disagreed on paying extra fees for their children's health safety at schools.
The findings were followed by a lively and meaningful plenary session. The point raised by Rasheda K. Chowdhury on a lack of stimulus for the education sector was picked up by more than one participant. Government should disburse one-time cash aid to schools across the country to help them get ready for reopening, since rural institutions will not be able to resume classes by maintaining Covid-19 health guidelines (due to a shortage of funds).
They requested the government to also relaunch the Mid-day Meal Scheme for all pre-primary to secondary level students to prevent any dropouts.
"Going back to school is essential, but the government must ensure going back to learning too," said Campaign for Popular Education's (CAMPE) Executive Director Rasheda K Chowdhury, adding, "It is very unfortunate that the government has provided stimulus packages for many sectors but the education sector still remains untouched.
"The mid-day meal programme must be restarted so that the students can go to school willingly. The campaign must be resumed on an emergency basis to bring the students back to school. At the same time, the government must rethink the curriculum."
She also urged the private sector to support the schools in facing future challenges.
Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya said, "The Covid-19 pandemic revealed a vulnerability of Bangladesh's education sector. A good number of students are facing disparity as they did not have equal access to online classes.
"Schools in urban areas are ahead of those in rural areas in terms of making preparations for reopening. At the same time, the private schools are better prepared than the government ones."
Debapriya also pointed out that there was a significant possibility of the number of child marriages and child labour going up due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
For his part, Dr Manzoor Ahmed, Professor Emeritus of Brac University said: "It will not be wise to reopen all the schools at the same time. They can be reopened in multiple phases. Schools located in less Covid-19-prone areas can be reopened at first, then the others gradually after observing the overall situation.
"The government must take up a two-year plan to help recover the learning losses and to check the number of dropouts. The curriculum has to be recast too. Only Bangla and Mathematics can be mandatory for primary students, and Bangla, Mathematics, English and Science can be compulsory for secondary-level students."
He also emphasised forming upazila-level committees comprising education officials, teachers, guardians, local representatives and NGOs. "Tk 10 crore must be allocated to each upazila for recovering learning losses," Dr Ahmed said.
Addressing the event, Chairman of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education Board Dhaka Professor Nehal Ahmed said they won't reopen all schools at once due to the coronavirus situation.
"We will decide to reopen schools after getting permission from the national committee. Even we won't reopen schools at once. Who will take responsibility if any student gets infected by the virus? So we have to remain alert and maintain all health- related directives," he also said.
Nehal Ahmed added they will take suggestions from all concerned and scrutinize these before reopening of schools.
"The government issued a guideline on February 4 to take preparations and maintain safety for school reopening. However, most of the schools are prepared to reopen now," he also added.
Dr Golam Faruk, director general of the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education, said that schools had completed all preparations for resuming classes. "We are ready to support the schools if they face a financial crisis."
Still in the dark
Most people tracking the outbreak in Bangladesh would be surprised to learn that the country did not manage to reopen schools at all in February - a target they had in mind since at least mid-December, when the cases started declining in the country. Nor has there been any notable spike to suggest those plans were premature.
On January 23, the Ministry of Education issued a notice for schools and colleges to be prepared for reopening at any time after February 4. The notice also included detailed guidelines from the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education (DSHE) for maintaining health safety measures at educational institutions.
The guidelines included preparing a budget for buying disinfectants, creating a routine for daily cleaning, orienting the cleaning crew for cleaning and disinfection, among other directives.
The DSHE guidelines instructed educational institutions to ensure at least three feet of space between seats for students, as well as mandatory use of masks. It also suggested dividing students of each class into shifts to ensure social distancing and directed to ensure distance learning for those who are unwilling to attend classes physically.
The next day, Dipu Moni said the government ordered the educational institutions to complete the preparation for in-person lessons within February 4, attaching maximum priority to the health of the students, teachers and support staff so that they can reopen anytime amid the outbreak.
"In the meantime, we will decide following the national advisory committee's recommendation whether to take the students back to classrooms when the lessons begin in the week after February 4, or wait some more days," she said, addressing an event to mark the International Day of Education.
Earlier that day in parliament, she briefed the House on health and safety guidelines formulated by her department to ensure a safe return to school for students and teachers. But February 4 came and went - with no uptick in the infections or anything to do with the virus. In fact it has continued its decline. The infection or positivity rate that came down to single digit on December 19, and below 5% on early January, has not looked likely to reverse the trend. By early February it was in fact down below 4%, and now it's below 3% for the last three days. Even vaccination has been progressing swimmingly since kicking off on February 9.
Schools have also reopened in our most important neighbouring countries, I.e. India and Pakistan, which both suffered far scarier outbreaks. Strangely, from being on the cusp of reopening, here it almost went off the agenda altogether, as if forgotten and shelved, till university students started agitating this week. By then the question was no longer when schools would reopen, but rather why haven't they opened yet?
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