2020: Education faces a challenge after pandemic creates a learning gap

  • Shahidul Islam, Senior Correspondent, bdnews24.com
    Published: 2020-12-29 11:40:06 BdST

bdnews24

Students in Bangladesh got automatically promoted to the next classes in 1971 when the country fought a bloody Liberation War against Pakistan. The government resorted to the automatic promotion option once again in outgoing 2020.

This time, nearly half a century after the independence, the entire world is fighting a common enemy so tiny that it cannot be seen with bare eyes. The virus, SARS-CoV-2, has upended all aspects of public life, including education.

Many of the educational institutions are holding online classes while the government is airing lessons on TV and radio, but educationists do not see anything to be satisfied with.

From now, they believe Bangladesh has to be ready to keep learning undisrupted during any disaster by reviewing the curriculum and making infrastructural changes.

Bangladesh shut down all educational institutions on Mar 17 after the government detected the first cases of COVID-19, the deadly respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. All the institutions, barring Qawmi madrasas, are to remain shut until Jan 16.

Vaccines for adults are expected to begin arriving in the country in months, if not weeks, but people related to the education sector believe the government will not be able to allow in-person classes or exams anytime before the end of winter, or the inoculation of a satisfactory portion of the population. No coronavirus vaccine has been trialled on children until now.

The public exams of classes V and VIII were cancelled in 2020 along with the annual exams of the primary and high schools as the number of cases of infection and fatalities continued to surge.

The Higher Secondary Certificate exams, too, were cancelled and students will be evaluated on the basis of their performances in the JSC and SSC exams while the sessions logjam menace looms over the universities.

Professor M Wahiduzzaman of Dhaka University’s Institute of Education and Research thinks that the government has failed to keep the education sector moving in the way it revived the economy.

“The philosophy here is human lives first, then education. Still, we have kept our educational activities rolling through the virtual system,” he said.

The country has made much progress in its ‘Digital Bangladesh’ initiative, but everyone should keep in mind that it started well behind the others in terms of technological infrastructure, he said, pointing out the limitations of online education in the country.

“Educational institutions, among other places, lack capable leadership. Has the Open University played any role during the pandemic? We’ve not been able to provide online education and degrees,” Prof Wahiduzzaman said.

Raising questions on how the educational institutions would survive, he said, “We’ve learnt during the COVID-19 outbreak that we lack the infrastructure to move any system forward. That’s what we’re working on.”

Authorities at Phulkundi Kindergarten School of Nabinagar Housing in Dhaka's Mohammadpur are struggling to run the school amid the coronavirus epidemic. There may be no students now as the school is closed but its expenditures remain. Unable to bear the expenses, the authorities have now put the school, established in 2004, up for sale. Photo: Mahmud Zaman Ovi

“We have to set a target determining how we should proceed after the pandemic. The new curriculum has to include these things, it should be modernised and made smarter.”

“Technology must be utilised at all times, not just during the coronavirus crisis. This has to be included in the curriculum. Our education system has a lot of content. COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to cut it down. This huge flaw of the curriculum has to be fixed. We can reap benefits if we can fix these issues even if it is for coronavirus.”

Wahiduzzaman recommended incorporating the use of devices for remote learning in the curriculum.

Prof Wahiduzzaman leaned on the idea of opening up educational institutions in phases. He said that the opening could start with class X while the lessons for HSC candidates could be kicked off by resuming classes for 12th graders in college.

According to Wahiduzzaman, maintaining physical distancing rules while holding classes could be achieved by setting such a routine that will allow the classes to be held every other day.

He placed emphasis on assignments, arguing that the students can learn more through these rather than memorising texts.

Academician Prof Serajul Islam Choudhury was troubled by the uncertainty over reopening of the educational institutions.

“A year is lost!” he said.

“The lessons via digital or any other medium were not given properly; not everyone could receive [lessons]. The internet did not work properly for many.”

“Online lessons are not going to work. Those who live in villages have no access; the poor can’t avail online classes. How are they going to afford it?”

Decrying the quality internet services in the country, he added, “[The internet] shuts down so frequently, it is never [constantly connected]. There are continuous interruptions. This is not going to be enough,” he said.

A political-cultural activist, Prof Serajul was apprehensive about the reopening of the educational institutions potentially drawing crowds.

“We are so highly populated. No other place brings such big crowds to schools. This pushes us behind.”

“We will keep hoping that the vaccine will come, summer will be here, and then we will be able to reopen educational institutions. The loss in education surpasses the damages caused anywhere else.”

Md Moshiuzzaman, a member of the National Curriculum & Textbook Board, told bdnews24.com that they want to carry on with assignment-based lessons in three-month courses if the educational institutions do not reopen at the beginning of next year.

Noting that reopening might not be possible until February next year, he said, “In that case, students would be kept attached [to studies] through assignments. We’ve chalked up a plan until March.”

New lessons would cover what the students have missed due to the pandemic shutdown, he said.

Virtual classes will continue even if the coronavirus crisis eases. Digital versions of the lessons will also be made available to allow students to allow unimpeded learning during any crisis.

Ziaul Kabir Dulu, president of the Abhibhabak Oikya Forum [Parents Unity Forum], said, the institutions have to take extra classes and cancel all sorts of holidays to make up the gap in studies.

“If it is not possible to open the institutions, the government has to make devices and other related equipment available free of cost for better online classes,” he said.

He made a case for keeping an eye out for any discrimination which may be sparked by these online classes and taking special care so that no student drops out.

Md Mahbub Hossain, secretary of secondary and higher education, said that the virtual methods of providing lessons would not stop.

“We will take steps on how to better conduct education activities virtually. We would also need to think about different alternatives.”

TUITION FEE CRISIS

Tuition fee has become a major headache in the education sector since the shutdown began. The private institutions launched online classes, but many of the parents do not find it reasonable to pay for the lessons the children are learning online.

The government has ordered the private educational institutions to only take tuition fees to end problems over the issue amid the pandemic, but the situation has become more complicated.

The institutions say they are failing to pay the teachers and staff, and facing difficulties to continue operations without the other fees.

After demonstrations by groups of parents, some schools agreed to cut one or two months’ fees, or remit the fees for those who lost their job due to the pandemic.

Many kindergartens have been closed for good as they could not continue paying rents. Many of the teachers of these institutions have switched jobs while others are having trouble finding an alternative source of income. 

As the year ends with serious questions hanging over the fate of teachers, the wait for answers is set to continue.