Pandemic threatens to pull the plug on cash-strapped kindergartens in Bangladesh

Mizanur Rahman runs Memory Preparatory School on two rented floors of a building in Dhaka’s West Rampura. The coronavirus-induced shutdown of educational institutions has hit his finances hard and forced him and his family out of their rented flat and move to the school.

“It’s a bit difficult to stay here, but I don’t want to shut the school for good,” he said.

Md Shafiur Rahman Suruj, who ran Rose Dale Kindergarten in Meherpur’s Barabazar, is supplying biscuits to grocers in order to earn for his family.

The school with 18 classrooms had over 350 students and 16 teachers.

“Everything was going very well. Now the benches are in ruins,” Suruj said.

He stored all the furniture in one room and left the others after failing to pay rents for months on end while waiting for the situation to get normal.

Holy Heart International School at East Dholaipar in the capital, however, has probably been closed forever.

One of its directors, Hridoy Chhaiyal, left the city and went back to his village home in Shariatpur.

“I left the school furniture so that the landlord can sell them for Tk 50,000 which I owe him in rent,” he said.

The teachers and employees of the kindergarten schools across Bangladesh are facing similar situations like those of Mizanur, Suruj and Hridoy.

Around 40,000 kindergartens in the country have employed nearly 1 million teachers and staffers, according to Mizanur, who is also general secretary of Bangladesh Kindergarten Association.  

They fear that more than half of these institutions will shut down forever if they are not allowed to reopen after the end of the extended shutdown on Dec 19.

“We are living in inhumane conditions. Many are trying to sell the schools while the others have switched profession as we are failing to pay rents due to the shutdown,” said Mizanur.

“Many of the teachers are pedalling vans, driving auto-rickshaws, or selling fruits, groceries, clothes and other goods. They are desperately trying out alternatives just to survive,” he said.

Mizanur’s school had 1,350 students, but only 350 of them are now in touch.

“The others are not taking lessons or paying tuition fees. Many of those who are taking the lessons cannot pay either,” he said. 

Mizanur wants to keep his school in operation even if they do not get paid for up to five months. “But I don’t know if this will be possible finally,” he said.

More than 100 kindergartens out of the 10,000 members of the association have been closed for good, Mizanur said, and added that many others will shut down if they cannot admit students after December.

The association submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina seeking her help. “If we get loans on low interests, we can pay the rents and save the schools,” Mizanur said.

They spoke to different top-level officials but have not heard from them, said M Iqbal Bahar Chowdhury, chairman of the Bangladesh Kindergarten School and College Unity Council.

“Many teachers have switched career which does not bode well for the country. We can’t beg to someone, but we haven’t got a single penny in the last nine months,” he said.

According to Jahangir Kabir Rana, member secretary of the National Committee to Save Kindergartens and Equivalent Institutions, said around 6,000 kindergartens have wound up operations due to the coronavirus shutdown.

“No kindergarten charges more than Tk 3,000 for admission. But that money in the beginning of the year helps us continue operations throughout the year. Two-thirds of the schools will get closed if they are not allowed to reopen in January,” he said.

Takbir Ahmed, a director of Fulkuri Kindergarten in Dhaka’s Mohammadpur, said he wanted to sell the school to pay the rents and repay loans he had to take to save the institution, but there is no buyer.

It has been giving lessons to mostly poor children as it is in a slum area, said Takbir.

Finally, a person helped him with the rents until December after learning about the dire condition of the school in a newspaper report, he said. 

The Ideal Public School and Blue Bird International School in Dhaka’s Matikata, Srijan Central School and College in Savar's Baipail, Rampura's Holy Vision Residential School and College, and Savar’s Popular International School are up for sale now as the authorities are no longer able to bear the costs, according to the associations of kindergartens.

The government has given directives to admit the students of kindergartens that have been closed to the primary schools oit runs, said Alamgir Muhammad Mansurul Alam, the director general of primary education.

He said he asked the officials to conduct a survey to find out how many kindergartens have been closed, and collect information about the number of students studying in those institutions.

“Because the government will have to give them textbooks when they get admitted somewhere,” he added.