Reopening Educational Institutions — Are We There Yet?

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Image credit: Dhaka Tribune/Syed Zakir Hossain

E D U C A T I O N – B A N G L A D E S H

M. Nil

On 26 August, the Business Standard reported that universities would reopen in phases from 17 October. 

At first glance, this seems like a long-overdue change. The closure has resulted in nearly two years’ worth of learning loss, university session jams, students from low-income and underprivileged households with no accommodations being evacuated from dorms, and a rise in child marriage. In fact, a BIGD and PPRC joint survey found that 97.7% primary guardians and 95.5% secondary guardians will send their children to school on re-opening. 

 A few weeks ago, faculty members from Rajshahi university protested by conducting classes in parks, under the shade of trees. Their demands? That education cannot be halted, it needs to be resumed urgently. And, their protest came amidst students facing extreme uncertainties about their futures. The learning loss and session jams arising due to the closure will mean many students from low-income families looking at a financially unstable future as they are forced to seek other means to support their families — foregoing education and as a result, higher-paid jobs. In addition, both underage and mature girls from low-income families may be forced to stop their education and face being married off or employed in vocational jobs.

The domino effect brought on by the closure, hence, is an immense once, impacting many — especially, those belonging to low-income and underprivileged households — and stripping them of the opportunities and futures they may, otherwise, have gotten.

Amidst it all, this decision may seem like a welcome change. However, can the government really ensure proper safety when schools and universities reopen?

Educational institutions across the country were closed from March 2020 on account of the pandemic. And reopening them had to be repeatedly delayed for the rise in infection rates. While urban students continued their education via remote learning, most underprivileged students were denied access to education because they did not have the financial stability to partake in remote learning. It did not help matters that the Education Ministry failed to come up with a plan to ensure that smartphones or computers and an accessible internet connection were available to all.  

The decision to reopen them, however, seems conditional as the report emphasises that institutions are only opening if the infection rates drop. Infection rates dropping remain a best-case scenario as Covid rates across the country are still at an all-time high with more than six thousand people testing positive daily with the death toll remaining over 100.

The situation at present

The most recent lockdown fully ended on 19 August after nearly a month of on and off one or two-week-long lockdowns to combat infection. It bears mentioning that despite implementing these lockdowns, the government has not been able to curb infection rates which still remain high at 16.9%. The lockdown was also lifted for a week before Eid-ul-Adha in order to boost the economy. This resulted in people crowding in shopping malls and cattle markets, not helping the concerning Covid situation the country was already facing.

So, the lockdown ending at a time when the infection rate is still high implies that we are most likely not looking at a scenario where the infection rates drop enough to ensure a safe return. And, as highlighted above, attempts at curbing transmission by enforcing lockdowns have not really worked, which is telling of a more subtle truth — the fault lies at a different place.

In addition, the country is once again facing a vaccine crisis. In a statement, the Health Minister commented how a special mass vaccination programme is not possible anytime soon. As of yet, only 4.0% of the country has been vaccinated. That means in a country of 163 million people, only 7.1 million people have been fully vaccinated. Although the Health Ministry signed an MoU today for the production of Sinopharm vaccines through Incepta Pharmaceuticals, acquiring enough vaccines will still take a considerable amount of time. As such, students would have to wait for a long period of time before a second mass vaccination programme will be announced.

When Bangladesh began its vaccination programme in February of 2021, it began so — like the rest of the world — by prioritising frontline workers such as healthcare, manufacturing, and law enforcement personnel. Since then, the vaccination programme has been slow-going due to there not being enough doses for everyone. And, even now when the age limit has been reduced to 18 years of age — most primary and secondary students are still not applicable to receive vaccines. And, while high-school and university students can now get vaccinated, there has been no mention of how all of them are going to be vaccinated by late September when the reopening plan is set to commence. Not to mention that while those belonging to the education sector were encouraged to get vaccinated, there has not really been any targeted initiatives by either the Health or Education Ministry to ensure that these people did get vaccinated. 

Even the announcement had no mention of how the government planned to ensure that all educational staff and students would be vaccinated. As such, it still remains uncertain whether all educators and students would be in a low-risk environment once the institutions re-open. 

Though the government is planning to open them in phases, there have been no clarifications or mentions of what exactly those phases will be yet. The announcement that primary and secondary schools will only be reopened if the infections rates drop to 5% is based on a hypothetical, which with the current Covid situation, seems an unlikely bet. 

The end of lockdown means social distancing and vaccination will be our only defences against the virus and it is obvious that social distancing cannot properly be maintained in schools that have large student bodies and are almost always extremely crowded places. Even face-shields may not be enough to prevent infection in crowds like that. 

The government’s vague promise of “in phases” seems dubious. As such, it might prove to be ill-prepared and rushed. Especially considering the vaccination shortage and lack of data showing exactly what percentage of educational staff got vaccinated. 

The condition of education at present

For the fiscal year 2020-2021, the government allocated Tk 66,000 crores for use in educational sectors, yet the allocated budget was not fully utilised by the education ministry. Moreover, skill and development training for teachers have been halted. For the education sector to progress and the learning losses to be remedied, the government would need to use 4% of the GDP for use in Education. Additionally, the budget allocated will have to be used efficiently and skillfully.

However, the government has yet to address or take any initiative to bridge the learning gap that has arisen due to the pandemic. All of this hints at sloppy preparations and mismanagement once the institutions reopen, which might give rise to another deadly surge in infections.

Reopening them now, thus, seems like a risky endeavour even when it may feel like a necessary one. If educational institutions reopened without ensuring all educators and students were vaccinated, a safety risk will be posed as there is a high possibility that after reopening them, we will find ourselves in the midst of another deadly wave — especially now that the Lambda variant is on the rise — with most of the infected being educators and students themselves. And, if we apply the previous government responses to the rise in infections as a model, a rise brought on due to the reopening of institutions might be a fatal one and one that might blow out of proportion due to delayed response and mishandling.

Thus, after 17 months of the pandemic, the Education sector of the country is yet to be revived and no real attempts have been made to revive it. And, even initiatives such as radio or television-based learning or assigning students schoolwork have failed to revive it — largely due to the half-heartedness of the attempts and the lacklustre way they have been managed.

The best case scenario: Is it actually as easy as it seems?

If, however, all goes according to plan and the infection rates drop and the institutions successfully reopen in phases, how might this sudden change affect students themselves?

After suffering a huge learning loss and coping with all the uncertainties and turbulence brought on by the pandemic, will students be able to handle the academic pressure they will suddenly find themselves bearing? 

It bears mentioning that announcements from the Education Ministry always refrain from addressing how they are going to ensure that students are not immediately overwhelmed and get enough time to be eased into the sudden academic load they will all undoubtedly find themselves in once institutions reopen.

While many may say that it is the students’ responsibility to handle the academic load after a long time off from school, it fails to take into consideration the stress having an uncertain future may have affected them. Here, a BIGD-PPRC joint survey sheds some much-needed light.

The study highlights the following:

  • Students in low-income households have found themselves threatened with not only learning loss but also a rise in out-of-pocket spending to continue their education and multidimensional social alienation. 
  • Out of pocket education costs has risen 13 times for the urban poor and 11 times for rural families between June 2020 and March 2021.
  • At the moment, a total of 5.92 million children are at risk of facing serious learning loss. 
  • Between 12% of 10-20 years old (16% for urban sub-sample) are reported to be suffering from mental stress.

A BIGD survey also found that since the closing of educational institutions, students have undergone an 80% loss in study hours — none of which the ministry has addressed. The fact that all throughout the seventeen months there haven’t been government initiatives to really introduce e-learning to NCTB students only clarifies how the learning loss Bangladesh may have suffered might leave a significant impact in the coming years.

State negligence and a lack of proper initiative, then, has endangered the futures and livelihoods of millions of students and even after nearly two years, we still do not know any plans regarding how they are going to proceed with this.

It is undeniable that students will need time to re-adjust and re-calibrate to their surroundings once schools, colleges, and universities reopen. After the reopening, they have to attend daily to make up for the learning loss. Not only that, but they would also need to be cautious — especially, those attending schools and colleges in very crowded settings — so they do not bring the virus back home to vulnerable family members.

By not addressing the uncertainties that still remain glaring, the Education Ministry is only adding stress to an already stressful situation.

An alternative must be considered

It is apparent, then, that even if educational institutes were to re-open, students might find themselves in a very chaotic situation and suffer from mental distress due to the sudden onslaught of maintaining both their education and health. Without the Education Ministry properly addressing these issues, numerous students will undoubtedly fall behind. 

While many may assume that a return to on-site learning will be easy and without hurdles, the possibility of it being so are little. Learning will never be the same again. And, initiating a plan and implementing it is more urgent now than ever. As such, the need for an alternative arises. And, at the moment, remote learning is the only feasible alternative present.

Although the UGC has proposed a method to implement hybrid learning at universities, the decision comes very late and after a wait that has proven detrimental to many. And even if hybrid learning is implemented at universities, the question remains as to the fate of school and college students. A more pressing concern is when, if ever, hybrid learning is going to be implemented. 

Regardless, it is crucial that the Education Ministry employs its resources to implement proper remote learning across the entire country as soon as possible.

And while it is, as of yet, difficult to completely comprehend what might exactly end up happening once schools, colleges, and universities across Bangladesh re-open, one thing is certain — in order to curb and overcome the learning losses we have suffered, the government must do better to ensure students across the country have better access to education.

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