Want to save our nation’s future? Reopen schools.
Let's admit it: the time for debate on school reopening is over. It's time to stop treating education as an afterthought, as if it's not a priority. Observing the Covid infection peak-plateau curve to decide whether schools should be open or not, while treating education as a secondary sector in the matrix, has done enough damage—not only to the students and their parents, but also to the entire nation. The short- and long-term effects of the ever-evolving pandemic on the education sector are yet to be measured. But if we don't rethink education as a frontline sector, there will be nothing to measure in the long run.
As a practising academic administrator, my observation is simple: if banks and hospitals can stay open, schools can too. Once we put the same safety measures that we expect other institutions to follow, once we pursue the five key pillars of pandemic control: masking, social distancing, hand-washing, cleaning, and contact-tracing when exposures occur and quarantining those exposed, I don't see any reason why we shouldn't let our students out of the Zoom boxes and back into their classrooms. The accessibility to vaccines gives us additional hope.
We will never reach a consensus on whether schools can be made safe from the coronavirus. Health experts will always have their own measurement sticks. There's no reason to doubt their scientific explanations. But to think schools are the only places where our young ones are exposed to the risk of infection is a fallacy that we cannot afford to entertain. The other parts of society have started to pick up their regular tempo, and the chances of getting contaminated in the communities are equally high for those attending their classes online. The sooner we accept that in-person instruction is essential and physical presence in classrooms is important for the overall learning environment, the easier it will be to reopen our schools. The delayed return to classrooms will only prolong the emergency mode that we adopted at the start of the pandemic. In the last two years, we have learned to live with the disease. It's about time we relearnt to live offline.
Research shows that Covid infection rates in schools have not been higher than in communities. In fact, tracking cases in schools is relatively straightforward as we are dealing with a controlled environment. But the problem arises the moment we are asked to adjudge whether students, teachers, and staff are spreading the virus on campuses or just carrying in the disease from elsewhere. The answer gets convoluted. Hence, instead of treating campus communities as potential vectors, we should weigh up the risks and benefits.
Online teaching has repeatedly brought forth the issue of educational equity. The government intervention for data supply and aid for gadgets came in too little, too late. Meanwhile, we witnessed disproportionate recourse to online teaching platforms and accessibility. We can gloat over the commercial ad in which a father makes a bamboo mobile holder for his daughter's online classes in a peripheral village. The reality is: there is a limit to that particular student's access to a virtual classroom. The internet speed required for video streaming, class participation and presentation is far from ideal. The affordability of services soon becomes an issue. The urban-rural and the rich-poor divides become a reality. Add to that the mental health issues that plague students exposed to excessive screen time without any human interaction.
From my interaction with parents and colleagues, I can tell how social isolation affects our students as they struggle to stay focused on their online lessons. Many students in remote-learning situations are falling behind academically. Their work ethics are changing. They are often taking advantage of the home environment to cheat in their examinations. Many do other things while leaving their devices logged in to virtual classes.
The overall monitoring that schools provide serves as a safety net for many students. A school is a safe place for students to spend the day with their peers. Teachers are often the first to notice if a student is suffering depression, or exhibiting abnormal behaviour caused by domestic, sexual or drug abuse. School closure has put many working parents in a very difficult position. They struggle to balance their regular jobs and parenting. They are forced to give their wards undue access to the internet in the name of virtual schooling. Once we factor in all the damage that school closure has done to our children—and, by extension, to the education sector—we realise that there is no reason to suspend school services every time there is a twist in the infection curve. Panic responses will keep on sending mixed signals to all stakeholders.
Online education served its purpose as a stop-gap solution. I think it's time to return to school with a renewed understanding of education. Education is as important as other frontline sectors. The massive vaccination drive undertaken by the government gives us some comfort in welcoming our students back to classrooms. We just need to insist on mask-wearing, physical distancing, and other mitigation measures to ease the process. These are the children who will probably make the best of the education, and come up with solutions to protect us from a similar pandemic in the future. Let's turn them into warm bodies in a physical classroom, rather than zombies in Zoom rooms.
Dr Shamsad Mortuza is the pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).