Learning recovery is a long battle but we must keep at it
Education, if looked beyond its conventional boundaries, forms the very essence of all our actions. The necessity of education cannot be overstated—it is not just a fundamental right, but an enabling right with a direct impact on the realisation of other human rights. Education is the primary driver of progress across the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a bedrock of an equal and peaceful society.
But the Covid-19 pandemic has compelled us to compromise on education. It has presented unprecedented global challenges to the schooling system, and Bangladesh has been no exception. According to a UN report issued in August, Bangladesh was the only country in South Asia and one of only 14 in the world that kept schools fully closed since March 2020—when the disease was first detected in the country— to curb the spread of the coronavirus, until the government decided to reopen schools in phases from September 12.
Last year, with the rise of the novel coronavirus, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an international public health emergency. Due to its high infection rate, countries worldwide, including Bangladesh, implemented lockdowns with the hope of flattening the curve. With schools, colleges and universities closed, nearly 38 million students in the country missed out on the opportunity to receive learning experiences and interact with their peers, according to a World Bank report released in April this year. Apart from the devastating health consequences associated with the virus, the pandemic holds major implications for the students' lives and work, affecting them profoundly.
The disruption in education has continued to have substantial effects beyond learning. The outbreak impacted the students' health and economic situation, as well as their mental and psychosocial well-being. Due to the lockdowns and movement restrictions, students had constrained access to socialisation, human interaction, and physical contact, which is vital for their psychosocial well-being and development. Therefore, students—especially children—felt confused and at a loss with the situation they were facing, leading to frustration and anxiety. This situation could potentially get worse with overexposure to mass and social media, mainly among adolescents.
Closure of educational institutions also exacerbated pre-existing education disparities among the most vulnerable children, youth, and adults by reducing the available opportunities—such as those living in rural or poverty-stricken areas, girls, people with disabilities, and forcibly displaced persons who find it difficult to continue their education. Moreover, shuttered schools, isolation from support networks, and rising poverty made it difficult for girls, especially those living in the rural areas, to continue school. So, it is needless to say that the pandemic and its devastating consequences have impacted the overall development of students in Bangladesh.
On the other hand, this crisis has stimulated innovation within the education sector. Distance learning solutions were developed speedily with the help of innovation and technology. However, the solutions have also demonstrated that the promising future of learning and the accelerated changes in modes of delivering education cannot be executed without leaving anyone behind. For example, students affected by a lack of resources or a proper environment to access learning faced major challenges during the closure of schools. The digital divide is likely to decrease with physical classes resuming again.
As schools are reopening, providing face-to-face classes alone is not enough to mitigate the losses caused by the deadly virus. Our students require a tailored and sustainable support system to help them readjust and catch up, eventually embracing the new normal. Schools must prepare to deliver that support and meet the enormous challenges of the months ahead.
Most children have lost considerable instruction time and may not be prepared to adjust to the curriculum and syllabus that were age and grade-appropriate before the pandemic. Students must receive effective remedial learning and comprehensive learning services that will improve their overall welfare, and meet their learning requirements.
Apart from that, reducing additional dropouts and absenteeism should be given the highest priority via communication campaigns and stipends. Stipends will help bring and retain students from underprivileged families, while campaigns designed for communications through different mediums will play a significant role in ensuring that learning continues amid the crisis.
Parents, educational institutions, and teachers must join forces together to take all necessary steps possible to plan, prioritise, and ensure that all students are learning again. Incorporating digital technologies to teach foundation skills could assist teachers in the classroom to gradually phase out the distance learning chapter of the students' lives. We should make it our priority to enable a supportive learning environment, which also addresses students' health, psychosocial well-being, and other needs.
When education systems collapse, a peaceful and prosperous society cannot be sustained. The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly hampered the education system and the entire student body. However, with schools reopening, we have the opportunity to create a sustainable and robust education system that will potentially kick-start the process to recover from losses induced by the pandemic.
Thomas Van der Wielen is the director of International School Dhaka (ISD).