EDUCATIONAL institutions have been closed since March 17, 2020 because of the COVID-19 outbreak. As the country is now going through a surge in COVID-19 infection, uncertainty looms large over the reopening of educational institutions. Various studies predict that the closure of educational institutions is highly likely to result in higher rates of dropout, especially of girl students and students from underprivileged backgrounds, inequalities in learning opportunities, and the rise in child marriage for female students residing in rural areas. We can say that the education sector of Bangladesh is going through the hardest time in her history in maintaining the quality of education.
In a recent webinar on learning loss because of COVID-19, organised by a web-based network of economists, the speakers focused on resource constraints and financial difficulties of poor students in accessing remote learning. One of the direct consequences of the closure of all educational institutions for such a long period is an increasing trend of child marriage during the COVID-19 outbreak. Several reports reveal that child marriage is on the rise and the rate of teenage pregnancy may increase if fewer girls return to school in future.
Studies also found that despite access to television and the internet, many students, especially in rural areas, are reluctant to watch educational programmes on TV and online. Then there are the students who have no such access. The rate of school dropout may substantially increase as a consequence and the students from poor and vulnerable backgrounds and girl students are likely to be the most negatively impacted in the post-COVID-19 era. Learning loss may also lead to poor performances in future. Moreover, the long-term closure of educational institutions may create psychological distress among students.
Students from low-income rural families and those studying in public educational institutions may have a relatively high learning loss. Such students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds and without access to technological resources, may find it very difficult to catch up on the level of learning in pre-pandemic times. This will likely widen learning gaps now more than ever.
In recent years, the World Bank and the government have been running a number of joint programmes to develop human capital. But a lack of budget in the education sector is a major constraint towards ensuring quality education for all. About 80 per cent of the total education budget is spent as recurrent expenditure which does not play any direct role in educational development.
A study called ‘A Simulation of COVID-19 School Closure Impact on Student Learning in Bangladesh (2021)’ provides a simulation exercise that shows three scenarios of learning loss: optimistic, intermediate, and pessimistic. Considering the length of school closures and the effectiveness of the mitigation being offered through distance learning programmes, the study finds that school closures because of the COVID-19 outbreak will result in a loss of between 0.5 and 0.9 years of learning-adjusted schooling for an average student. Therefore, the overall loss of learning for every child enrolled in school is expected to be substantial even in the most optimistic scenario. Moreover, simulation estimates show that school closures will increase the share of children who do not attain the minimum reading proficiency at the end of primary education (Class V) by 18 percentage points to 76 per cent from 57 per cent, considering all children are affected equally by school closures.
As remedial measures, based on cross-country evidence, the speakers at the online programme offered a 10-point recommendation, which include (1) recruiting additional teachers to support smaller class sizes, (2) implementing a tracking system to identify at-risk students, (3) providing recreational kits for students to develop socio-emotional skills, (4) utilising outdoor and other innovative spaces for learning, (5) developing an equitable education fund to help the children from low-income families at risk of dropping out, (6) offering scholarship, school kits and meals for the most vulnerable, (7) disseminating various communication materials through a ‘back to school’ campaign, (8) training teacher on strategies to assess and remediate learning loss, (9) keeping specific provisions for students with disabilities, and (10) introducing rations during school closures and combining this with the delivery of education materials.
While reforming the education system and enhancing investment in the education sector are essential in the long run, some strategies should be followed to mitigate learning loss in the short term, such as (1) to consider reopening schools in both rural and urban areas to some extent maintaining health guidelines, (2) to implement effective plans for mitigating learning loss, (3) to recruit new skilled teachers and provide training to existing teacher, (4) to follow up on students’ learning via phone calls, SMS texts, etc, and organising supplementary classes for at-risk pupils, (5) to coordinate large-scale public awareness campaigns and personalised visits for children who are living in localities or households identified as being high risk.
The COVID-19 outbreak should be taken as an opportunity to reconstruct the education system to build a society free from corruption, discrimination, and inequality. We must do some soul-searching with passion and comprehension to understand the real problems of our education system and take remedial measures accordingly. It must be remembered that the clock is ticking and we have to move fast.
Dr Foyasal Khan is an economist based in Dhaka.
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