What Bangladesh can learn from the reopening of US schools
About 56 million children in 130,000 primary and secondary schools in the United States, including about six million students in 30,000 private schools, are returning to a second school year this autumn under the spell of the pandemic, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 13,000 autonomous school districts in the US manage the public schools under guidelines from the state and federal governments. The schools' funding also comes from the state and federal governments and local level taxation. An average of USD 13,000 is spent per public school student every year—and a total of over USD 700 billion or 6 percent of GDP—in the US.
By comparison, Bangladesh has half of the population of the US and about 30 million school students. Proportionately, Bangladesh has a larger child population. Its budget allocation for education for FY2021-22 is Tk 71,592 crore (USD 8.5 billion), which amounts to roughly USD 300 per student. The annual public education spending in the US is more than double the total GDP of Bangladesh.
Most schools in the US had suspended in-person schooling for various periods in the last school year, which ended this June. The large majority of students relied partially or fully on school-organised distant learning. The expectation now is for resumption of a large measure of normal school activities in the new academic year. By the end of August, 52 percent of adults were fully vaccinated in the US, while 61 percent received at least one jab. A project is underway to vaccinate children of age 12 and above. But the pandemic's sway, particularly the highly infectious Delta variant, continues quite severely in several states. The barriers to effective application of the protection measures—some of them politically driven—cast a shadow on the expectations about normal school operations. There may be useful lessons for Bangladesh from their experience.
Questions that loom large now: Should children attend in-person classes at all? Beyond vaccinating all adults and now children over 12, should children be required to wear masks? What other measures should be taken?
Paediatrics experts Kanecia Zimmerman and Danny Benjamin, Jr, who tracked one million students in North Carolina through the last academic year, recently said that vaccination is the best way to prevent Covid-19, universal masking is a close second, and with vaccination and masking in place, in-school learning is safe and more effective than remote learning, regardless of community rates of infection.
The two researchers also insist that results can be achieved only by mandatory mask-wearing (The New York Times, August 10, 2021), They go on to suggest that once vaccination is available for all children and universal masking is enforced, it's reasonable for schools not to require quarantining or testing after exposure for asymptomatic children and adults. But school districts should keep using ventilation and social distancing and continue to perform routine testing for unvaccinated students.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in a report on August 27 (cited in the Los Angeles Times) mentioned the case of an unvaccinated, unmasked California elementary school teacher who came to school in May with symptoms, which she dismissed as allergy, and infected a dozen students, half her class, with the coronavirus. These children were all too young to be immunised. Altogether, 27 children and adults including four parents of the children were infected in the outbreak, which involved the Delta variant.
"A multipronged prevention strategy, including masking, physical distancing, testing, and most recently vaccination of children and adolescents [aged 12 years or older] will remain critical to reducing transmission as more students return to the classroom," the report concluded.
An issue that is much in discussion is: With many students falling behind in learning, especially the underprivileged ones, how can they be helped to recover? Two main approaches are: a) Remediation or repeating what students have missed or did not learn; and b) Acceleration by focusing on what students need to know to participate in the class they will begin this year. Amy Takabori of Carnegie Learning, a Pittsburgh-based education technology support company, says, "Remediation is entrenched in the past: what students missed last year and what they need to redo. On the other hand, acceleration focuses on the present… moving students forward on grade level and setting them up for success with just-in-time training on required foundational skills."
The acceleration approach to overcoming learning loss is akin to suggestions made in Bangladesh about a learning recovery plan that would focus on core learning content—Bangla and maths at the primary level, and Bangla, English, maths and science at the secondary level. This focus would apply both in classroom instruction and in public examinations.
The education authorities, especially the curriculum board, however, appear to be unwilling to stray from the trodden path. The board's plan is to teach as many lessons in all the subjects as the number of days will allow when schools reopen. What the students may learn, or if they will, does not seem to be the authorities' concern. They seem to be sticking to the present school calendar, though there may be very few instruction days left, if and when schools open. They have not responded to the suggestion for changing the school year to a September-June calendar as part of the recovery logistics.
The Ministry of Education proposes to conduct the public SSC and HSC examinations on the non-core subjects in the streams of Humanities, Science and Commerce. At the primary level, the authorities plan to conduct the full Primary Education Completion Examination (PECE) when school reopens, though educationists consider it as well as the JSC examination (at the end of Class 8) unnecessary and counterproductive.
Successful "acceleration" of students requires support and resources. Teachers need technical advice, guidance and time for planning and assessing students to determine where they need help. They also need to learn about using ed-tech material to help their students.
The scale of resources that may be provided to schools in Bangladesh, of course, will be modest compared to the US, but extra resources have to be made available. As I argued in a previous column (on August 8), the current school year should be extended to June of 2022. Opportunistically, the school year should be changed permanently to September-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.
The measures on school calendar, focus on core learning content in instruction and public exams, and additional resources to support schools and teachers are a must-do as essential elements of the learning recovery plan in an unforeseen emergency fraught with uncertainty.
The recommendations made by the Education Watch group and others regarding school re-opening 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.
Dr Manzoor Ahmed, currently visiting the US, is professor emeritus at Brac University.