To open or not to open schools
Since schools were closed due to the pandemic on March 17 last year, the closure has been extended 17 times. The latest announcement was on May 26 further extending the shut-down until June 12. But there is no guarantee that schools will restart on June 13, unless the premises and criteria for weighing risks and costs are reconsidered.
Surveys have revealed a tiny proportion of students did or could participate and that too not effectively in some form of distance learning initiated by the education authorities. The survey undertaken by Education Watch and those by others towards the end of last year also showed that students and parents overwhelmingly supported school re-opening with appropriate health and safety protocols in schools. The authorities at that point seemed inclined towards resuming regular schooling.
Then in late March this year the infection began to spike which was seen as the beginning of a second wave. It took a serious turn in India in April reaching one of world's highest infection and mortality rates that overwhelmed the healthcare system of the country. Bangladesh government decided that lockdown was necessary to be imposed. The restrictions were applied with various degrees of flexibility and were mostly not observed or enforced rigorously. However, schools remained closed. Schools and students seem to have been made to bear the heaviest brunt of all Covid-induced restrictions. Recent press reports show that students have become restive and have begun to take to the streets in different parts of the country demanding reopening of institutions.
In the news briefing on March 26, Education Minister Dr Dipu Moni made two significant points. School re-opening should be considered when infection rate comes down to below five percent (of those tested); and opening schools in stages starting with only in some parts of the country would be discriminatory, in her view ("Schools not opening soon," Daily Star, May 27).
If these standards are applied simultaneously for the whole country, the schools are not likely to open any time soon. These are not appropriate criteria for three reasons. Health specialists agree that when the pandemic will abate and whether there will be a third wave cannot be predicted. A major determinant is the time-table of mass vaccination. Meanwhile large parts of the country, especially rural areas, are, and will be, with low or close to nil incidence of infection. Should the large numbers of children in these areas be punished and deprived of learning opportunities?
Secondly, the discrimination and disparity argument is faulty—disparity has already existed in schools before the pandemic for many well-known reasons, one of which is the urban-rural disparity in services and provisions. It would be a step in the direction of mitigating disparities to offer a head-start for children in the remote and rural areas to recover their learning loss.
Thirdly, the idea that just restarting school all at once makes it an even playing field for all is a superficial and administratively convenient view of equal opportunity. Pre-existing disparities in the education system has been further aggravated by the pandemic. This should not be an argument for not supporting children to recover their learning loss wherever and whenever they can be assisted.
The Asian Development Bank experts looking after South Asia noted that the world's longest continuous closure of school due to the pandemic has been in Bangladesh. They have argued, citing international evidence, that keeping schools closed can be only the last resort and an extreme measure to be applied only for a short time, and that the costs and risks of keeping schools closed nationwide far outweigh those of keeping schools open ("School closure should be a last resort," Daily Star, March 27).
The Education Watch study recommendations "Bringing on Track Schools and Learning," in the interim report presented on January 17 this year still remain valid and relevant in spite of the second wave and even the possibility of a third wave. Its key messages were four-fold as explained in my earlier columns for this newspaper ("Four steps to reopening schools and recovering learning losses," Daily Star, May 5, 2021; "Can we prevent a potential collapse of the current education system," Daily Star, April 20, 2021; "Make school calendar child and learning friendly," Daily Star, December 20, 2020).
The key messages, briefly reiterated here, need to be given due consideration by decision-makers at the political level, backed up by necessary technical analysis of the choices. First, it is necessary to go for reopening in stages observing health and safety protocol and with coordinated planning by health and education authorities, especially at the local level. Secondly, a learning loss recovery plan has to be formulated and implemented with at least a two year time-line including extension of the current academic year by six months to June, 2022 and, opportunistically, changing school calendar permanently to September-June. There are also pedagogy, curricular arrangements, teacher support and learning assessment elements which need attention. Curriculum shortening and public exams have to be based on epistemological reasoning focusing on "core competencies", rather than sticking to the whole gamut of subjects in the syllabus.
Thirdly, effective management and implementation of the recovery plan is critical with upazila-based and institution-based planning. Finally, the short-term actions have to be placed within a medium term and longer term framework.
The unprecedented devastation of the education system, which surpasses the year-long disruption during the Liberation War in 1971, calls for bold decisions and exceptional steps. The policy-makers and decision-makers need to pay heed to the ideas presented above.
Dr Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at Brac University.