500 Days of School Closure: Averting a generational catastrophe
UNESCO has called the learning loss caused by the Covid-19 pandemic "a generational catastrophe." What does it mean, and how can we cope with it? A related question is, when should schools reopen and how? This has been a question ever since school closure began to be extended repeatedly since March last year. After 500 days of shuttered schools, an unsavoury landmark that Bangladesh hit on July 29, 2021, the question remains unanswered.
Learning loss and the generational catastrophe
The prolonged cessation of schooling already suffered by millions of children in low and middle income countries, difficulty of implementing a recovery plan, and the longer term impact on children's learning and their mental health, are unprecedented in their scope and scale. The loss of almost two school years means that a whole generation may grow up with irrecoverable education deficits, which can affect their adult life and performance and, in turn, have an adverse impact even on the next generation. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, speaking in October last year to a high-level education meeting at the UN, warned about a "generational catastrophe." Then, on March 29-30 this year, in a virtual meeting of education ministers in Paris, the danger of a generational catastrophe was reiterated by UNESCO's Director General Audrey Azoulay.
Evidence from surveys and expert opinion suggest that distance education initiatives such as TV programmes and online lessons have not benefited the large majority of children because of connectivity and device problems, and the limitations of one-way communication, with little interaction between teachers and students. Even in normal schooling, it is known that a majority of children do not learn what they are supposed to learn each year, according to National Student Assessment reports.
When schools restart, where should the students be placed—in the same class as they were in the beginning of 2020, allowing a loss of almost two academic years? Or should they be promoted to the next class, cutting the loss by a year? But how ready would they be to follow the lessons for the same class or the next higher class? How much of what they had learned has been forgotten? It is very likely that the large majority would be ill-prepared for restarting their lessons.
The way to find out their level of preparedness would be to conduct a rapid assessment of student learning when schools reopen, focusing on core knowledge and skills, such as in language and math (rather than specific content in the textbook), expected for a particular grade, to determine where the students should be placed. The schools and teachers have to be ready to conduct this assessment and they need to be guided and oriented by an expert team from the National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB) and the respective directorates.
How many will actually return to school when schools restart? Surveys and studies have indicated that child labour has increased during the pandemic, girls have been married off early, and some children have moved from mainstream schools to Qawmi madrasas because of lesser cost and the offer of room and board (and they remained open during Covid-19). Studies have also reported increased poverty, stress and tension in the family, and increased violence against children and women as a byproduct of the pandemic, which affect children's learning readiness. Pre-existing social and economic inequalities and educational disparities have been further aggravated as a pandemic impact.
After appropriate placement of students when schools restart, a "learning recovery" plan for the next two years have to be worked on and carried out, again focusing on the core competencies such as language, math and science, so that eventually students begin to fall into a normal curricular routine. Many education experts recommend that in teaching and testing, the emphasis on the core competencies should become a permanent feature of our schooling.
When should schools re-open and how?
The education community in Bangladesh, and the Education Watch 2020 report "Bringing on track schools and learning" prepared in March this year, advocated reopening of schools without delay in stages and with due health and safety precautions.
Meanwhile, beginning in mid-June, the Covid-19 Delta variant, a more virulent and risky infection in comparison to the earlier variants, arrived and spread to many parts of the country. Infection and death rates have soared and the healthcare system is deluged by patients requiring hospitalisation. Vaccination is not available yet to the large majority of the population. The government is trying hard to secure a sufficient volume of vaccines from all possible sources, but a timetable for full mass coverage does not yet exist.
A quick reopening of schools, therefore, cannot be contemplated at this time. A definite timeline will depend on how quickly all school teachers, staff and their families can be covered by vaccination. For tertiary level education, students should also have vaccine protection before their respective institutions re-open.
The authorities should begin planning for extending the current school year to June 2022 and take this opportunity to come to a decision on a permanent change of school year from September to June, starting from this year. The current school year, if necessary, can be extended to July or August next year, foregoing summer vacation as part of the recovery plan.
What about public exams?
The public examination arrangements have to be reconsidered. The PECE at the end of class five and JSC at the end of class eight should be dropped in 2021 and 2022. A simpler and more useful alternative should be considered for the future. SSC, HSC and equivalent exams should be held when schools re-open, but they should only test core subject areas and in an abridged form, making it possible to complete each exam within a week, as many experts have recommended.
However, a decision has been announced by the Ministry of Education that SSC and HSC exams for 2021, whenever these are held, will be on the additional subjects related to the separate academic streams (Science, Commerce, Humanities) rather than on the core contents of Bangla, English and Math. The scores in these core skills will be decided on the basis of students' past marks obtained in their JSC and SSC exams. This is an injudicious decision. The merit of the students and their future academic performance are better judged by the competency they can demonstrate in the core skills of languages and math.
I recommend foregoing the exams in the additional subjects in the interest of keeping the public exams short, concentrating on the core subjects and completing them within a week. I hope the decision announced will be reconsidered. Planning for the exams in the changed format should begin in earnest and all concerned—teachers, parents and students—should be given necessary orientation and information much in advance.
The two measures on school calendars and public exams are the least that must be done as essential elements of the learning recovery plan in an unprecedented emergency fraught with uncertainty.
The recommendations made by Education Watch and other groups will still apply. These include a step-by-step approach; ensuring safety measures in all schools with financial support from the government; health and education sector collaboration at the local level to protect and keep children, teachers and families safe; and involving local stakeholders—NGOs, parents and local government—in implementing and monitoring the learning loss recovery plan.
Schools have to be reopened safely and with a plan to carry out learning recovery successfully. The danger of a generational catastrophe has to be averted. Proper planning should begin urgently, involving stakeholders beyond the closed circle of officials, even though the timetable remains uncertain. Bold thinking and unconventional responses are needed in these exceptional times.
Dr Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at Brac University. The views expressed are his own.