Since the beginning of the pandemic, educational institutions have been closed in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus. Face-to-face education had been stopped at schools, colleges and universities. Around 188 countries have suspended face-to-face education during the pandemic. Hence, countries which were already facing crisis in the area of education could now potentially face a catastrophe.
In Bangladesh, about 40 million students have been affected due to the closer of the educational institutions in view of the pandemic. Schools have been closed since March 2020. Only a handful of educational institutions are imparting education through online platforms while most are closed and their students are sitting idle at home with tremendous mental agony. There are no online teaching and learning facilities in most parts of the country. Villages, sub-urban areas and remote places are not covered by quality internet services. Students from poor families do not have access to computers, smart phones and internet. Parents of most students do not have the skills to teach their children at home. Children of poor families are particularly in difficult situations as these families are also going through livelihood crisis. Boys are asked to search for and get engaged in income earning activities for their families. Girls are being married off as they are considered burden for their families. Early marriage and early child bearing will potentially risk the health of both mothers and children. Therefore, several achievements made over the decades are apprehended to be reversed due to the pandemic. Not only the inequality of learning is going to accentuate, but inequality in terms of health and nutritional status and economic opportunities will be visible much more than before.
Even the children who are receiving online lessons face several problems. Though the education sector has observed some digitisation through television, internet, and radio learning during the last few years, students are not fully used to this yet. Teachers also did not have experience of online teaching. Teaching materials for online classes were not developed. Hence the quality of education is lower than face-to-face education.
Since the pandemic is primarily a health threat which has also hit the economy hard, the attention of the policymakers has been mainly on controlling the virus and keeping the wheels of the economy running. Sending children home was part of the health and safety measures for the students. In doing so, the medium to longer term issues have remained out of sight. Meeting up the learning needs of students during the pandemic is one such issue which has long term implications for the country.
In view of the damage caused by the pandemic, the whole outlook and approach towards the learning loss have to be changed. The depth of the seriousness has to be recognised first. There have been discussions on opening the schools for some time now. The second wave of the pandemic has once again discouraged and delayed the decision. One also does not know when the pandemic will be gone. But everyone expects that once the wrath of the pandemic slows down, educational institutions will have to be opened up. Children are also eagerly waiting to go to schools and colleges.
Once such a decision is taken, adequate preparation has to be taken by all institutions and concerned administration. First and foremost is to strengthen the capacity of schools and colleges to maintain health and safety protocols. Facilities for rapid testing, tracing, masks, and sanitisation will have to be maintained. There is a need for coordination among the education and health officials at the field levels who can guide teachers and students. Community level health workers can also be involved for smooth implementation of health protocols at schools.
Second, the education approach will have to be different than the pre-pandemic period given the emerging situation. We need to bear in mind that we will not be able to regain what has been lost just by opening the schools and colleges and taking exams in the physical classrooms. It is likely that during these last several months since March 2020 there has been a decline in core competency of students. As it is, despite progress in a number of educational indicators over the past years, the quality of education has not improved much. Particularly, poor performance in mathematics, science and English even after secondary and higher secondary level education is very disappointing. Therefore, education experts have suggested that once the schools are opened, students need not study all subjects in the first year. They should rather focus on a few core subjects such as Bangla, English, mathematics and science during this one year so that the students have a stronger foundation before going back to their full curriculum.
Third, adequate resources will be required for implementing the above measures. Unfortunately, the budget for the education sector is stagnant around two percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the last few years. Education sector received only 2.09 percent of GDP and 11.7 percent of total budget in the national budget for fiscal year (FY) 2020-21. The allocation is much less than what is suggested by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The organisation suggests allocating 4-6 percent of GDP for education in its Education 2030 Framework for Action. Given that the loss in learning is huge, the budget allocation for education will have to be doubled what the government usually allocates. That is, in the coming budget for FY 2021-22, the government should allocate four percent of GDP for the education sector.
Fourth, higher allocation in the budget is of course, not the only remedial for restoring the education losses due to the pandemic. The education ministry has to know how to spend the allocated resources efficiently. Sadly, the allocated resource remains unutilised and the budget allocation for most sectors, including the education sector has to be revised downwards due to low spending. More often than not, there is more interest in physical infrastructure and less on soft infrastructure. Hence, recruitment of adequate number of school teachers and training are less prioritised by the authorities. As a result, teacher-student ratio in schools and colleges is high, and the quality of education is less than satisfactory.
Finally, the pandemic has intensified the already existing challenges in accessing quality education in the country. Though the school enrolment has been increasing, the quality of education has not. There seems to be a lack of realisation that investment in human capital is key to economic development. Countries which have skilled human resources have progressed more than those which do not. Skilled people have more opportunities in the labour-market, and they are more productive and economically better off than those who are not. As Bangladesh is on its journey of graduation from the least developed country group by 2026, human capital will play a critical role in its smooth journey.
While the pandemic has brought in much distress in all aspects of our lives, this can be considered as a turning point to prepare our education system for facing any future interruptions and crisis. This is an opportunity to enhance the digitalisation of the education system and access to technology so that students and teachers get equipped for both in-person classroom and remote learning methods. This is also an opportunity for building a stronger education system which is based on quality, inclusivity and equity.
Let us not waste a good crisis!
Dr Fahmida Khatun is the Executive Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of her organisation.