School closures have wreaked havoc on children. We must bounce back. – The Daily Star

Covid-19 is wreaking havoc in Bangladesh, like in the rest of the world, for the last 18 months. There was always a concern that the pandemic would disproportionately affect poorer countries. That is how it is in times of crisis: the fragility of public institutions becomes more evident, and their shortcomings are laid bare. Amidst the grim struggle between lives and livelihoods, one group in the country has practically fallen off the policy radar: schoolchildren. While public health and hunger are rightfully the most urgent concerns during a pandemic, the current state of education is causing irreversible harm to our country’s human capital, damage that will take decades to bounce back from—a ticking bomb, in other words.
All educational institutions have been closed since March of last year. This means, in a few months, children will pass two full grades without having attended a day of school. Of course, school closures do not automatically mean a complete break in learning. Parents and students together have found ways to cope with the crisis, as one would expect. Common alternatives to school learning adopted by families have ranged from the somewhat effective private tutoring and distance learning tools, to the more dubious unsupervised self-studying and help from family members.
A number of problems leap out. First, despite said coping measures, the substantial reduction in time spent on learning activities and the attempt to study outside the learning environment provided by schools are unlikely to compensate for lost school time. Second, all the above mentioned methods mean additional cost burdens for families, be it out-of-pocket costs for distance learning and private tutoring, or the opportunity cost of time spent by parents in teaching. With mouths to feed during a raging pandemic, poorer families will understandably prioritise earning activities over children’s education.
The third issue is the most obvious, and one that we should have foreseen. The notion that alternatives like distance learning tools would miraculously replace mainstream schooling is a pipe dream. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, one in five children of school-going age were out of school. The quality of education the rest were receiving was discouraging. Over half of children aged seven to 14 years did not demonstrate foundational reading skills before the pandemic, and almost three-fourths were found similarly lacking in numeracy skills, according to a 2019 survey conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) in collaboration with UNICEF Bangladesh. The ongoing school closure has only compounded the problem: at least one in four children are at risk of serious learning losses due to the prolonged disruption in education, as found by a recent study by the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD).
The government appeared to be concerned about the potential catastrophe. Immediately after the school closure, the authorities started broadcasting classes for primary and secondary students on national television—a commendable initiative on the surface. The problem, however, was the obvious absence of groundwork needed to properly execute such a measure. Over a third of rural families did not have access to a television. But even among those who had access, very few took those classes, and many who did found the content boring or difficult to follow. As a result, only two and three percent of primary and secondary school students, respectively, were reportedly using the medium.
Thus far, the multiple studies on education in Bangladesh carried out by BIGD over the course of the pandemic indicate three major consequences of school closures: worsening of the existing learning crisis, increasing out-of-pocket costs, and the very real possibility of widening social and economic inequality in the country. What can we do about it?
To draw attention to this silent learning crisis and to nudge public discourse towards effective, feasible interventions, BIGD brought together some leading international experts in a workshop in July this year. The task at hand was to find satisfactory answers to the following: how do we deliver catchup education to recoup learning losses? How do we ensure last-mile delivery of education without further exacerbating inequality? And finally, how do we minimise dropouts and also provide life opportunities to children who may drop out due to the economic fallout of the pandemic?
First, the government and NGOs alike must consider the stark digital divide when designing technology-based education interventions. To reach the greatest number of children, both advanced and simple technologies are necessary. It might be pre-recorded or live classes over the internet in some cases; in others, it might be as rudimentary as a text message that delivers and follows up on homework and math problems.
Second, since learning losses are unavoidable during school closure, we should, at the least, be able to identify and measure the learning gaps, so that when children return to school, we can tailor instructions to their appropriate learning level. Third, it is time we delinked learning from schooling. Remedial education during school hours will be unhelpful; students may fall back in their current grade. Thus, after-school remedial classes will be necessary to help students catch up and be on track. The challenge is to make the supplementary content engaging—and not overwhelming—for children. We also need to find creative solutions by exploring all possible delivery methods and by involving the entire education ecosystem, for example, by engaging community volunteers to provide supplementary education.
Finally, there is the looming danger of pandemic-induced dropouts among primary and secondary schoolchildren. Any and all measures that encourage children to stay in school—and parents to send their kids to school—should be explored. This includes incentives like free school meal plans and nutrition programmes. Also, the role of peers in promoting positive learning behaviour among students cannot be overstated. Interventions that emphasise the communal aspect of schools and promote cooperation and help-seeking behaviour among children have been proven effective against rising dropouts.
Rather than being proactive, policies and interventions in poorer countries have historically been reactive. But the Covid-19 crisis has exposed the pitfalls of this approach. Maybe this time, the pandemic will serve as the necessary impetus towards building more resilient institutions for the future.
 
Eradul Kabir is an Officer of Communications and Knowledge Management at BIGD, BRAC University.
সিরাজগঞ্জে যমুনা নদীর পানি বিপৎসীমার কাছাকাছি এসে অপরিবর্তিত আছে। সিরাজগঞ্জের হার্ড পয়েন্টে যমুনা ১৩ দশমিক ৩২ মিটার উচ্চতায় প্রবাহিত হচ্ছে, যা বিপৎসীমার মাত্র তিন সেন্টিমিটার নিচে এবং কাজিপুর…

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