Simply reopening schools is not enough

 Simply reopening schools is not enough

The government’s decision to reopen educational institutions must be taken positively. All educational institutions had been kept closed since the outset of the pandemic and though online studies had been declared with much fanfare, the initiative was an abject failure. One hardly can hope for an inquiry into this failure despite so much said about Digital Bangladesh. What can one expect, where Bangladesh is one of the five countries with the slowest internet speed in the world? It is useless wasting words on this.

We are all aware of the government’s steps taken to tackle coronavirus. The experience over the past 18 months basically included a few phases of eyewash ‘restrictions’, a flurry of stimulus package announcements and occasional vaccination ‘fests’. The only thing that remained constant was the closure of educational institutions.

Everything was ‘normal’, but the doors of educational institutions remained locked. Bangladesh stands second among the handful of countries that have educational institutions closed. These have remained closed since 17 March last year. Now it is being said that primary, secondary and higher secondary level educational institutions will open on 12 September. Dhaka University’s vice chancellor has said the university may reopen in phases from October.

Globally speaking, three long-term impacts of the corona pandemic are significant. Firstly is the impact on the education sector. An entire generation will lag behind because of the extended closure of the educational institutions. Such concern is even being voiced in countries where educational institutions were closed for only a short spell. The main problem will be bringing back the students who have dropped out.

The second impact is on nutrition of people with low incomes. Due to their earnings being curtailed, the poor people are eating less. This lack of nutrition will be manifest later on.

Public health science can hardly explain why the virus will spread more in the crowds at educational institutions than in the crowds at shopping malls and ferry terminals.

The third impact is manifest in an increase in income disparity. Even during the prevalence of coronavirus, the rich have become richer.

Bangladesh is not free of any of these three impacts. It does not seem that the government has any plans, or even any thoughts, about poverty and malnutrition. The planning minister was even reluctant to admit that people have become poor during coronavirus times.

The government has no mid-term, long term or integrated plans to tackle coronavirus. This has been obvious at every step over the past one and a half years. The absence of a participatory democratic system does not only have an adverse effect on politics or the economy. It has an impact on the public health and education sectors too.

The failure of the government’s steps is proven by the fact that the stimulus packages did not come to any use for the small and medium industries. Everyone is aware of the state of vaccine procurement and distribution, but who is responsible for the emerging circumstances? It may sound great to spew out rhetoric about the ‘success’ of the vaccine campaign, but the consequences for public health are horrifying.

Meanwhile, amid all this chaos, educational institutions remained closed. Public health science can hardly explain why the virus will spread more in the crowds at educational institutions than in the crowds at shopping malls and ferry terminals.

This is a political decision. The government’s ministers recently admitted this, perhaps inadvertently. When university teachers began taking symbolic classes, this caused the authorities a headache. For a few months the education ministry talked about preparing to open the educational institutions. But it remains unknown with what preparations the educational institutions are being opened.

The government has not said anything about the teachers and students being given priority in getting vaccinated. There is nothing said either about teachers and students wearing mask or about who will be responsible for holding the exams.

Students and parents need to know what measures will be taken if there is an increase number of corona cases in any institution, what rate of infections will call for measures to be taken, how will persons who come in contact with coronavirus patients be monitored, who will the institutions contact if needed and so on.

Educational institutions in various countries are opening up in various ways. Their experiences can be used. The experience of countries which have similar economies and social structures as Bangladesh will be more useful.

With educational institutions being closed during corona times, child marriage has increased by 13 per cent compared to normal times. This is the highest rate of child marriage in 25 years

It would not just be silly, but totally irresponsible to expect that the massive harm done to the education sector during corona times will be made up simply by reopening the educational institutions. There was always disparity in the society when it came to education. In the past year and a half, children of the upper class and the upper middle class could continue with their studies at their own initiative. But the children of poor families fell back further. For those children who have dropped out, simply unlocking the school doors is not enough.

According to studies run by BRAC and Manusher Jonno Foundation, with educational institutions being closed during corona times, child marriage has increased by 13 per cent compared to normal times. This is the highest rate of child marriage in 25 years.

For the families who cannot send their children to school due to a drop in their income, the government must reach out to them through the school authorities. If need be, NGOs and other non-government establishments can be involved in the task. This requires integrated planning. Does the government have any such planning?

The universities will determine when the universities will reopen. About the Dhaka University move in this regard, it is said that all students of the university will have to be brought under vaccination coverage by 15 September. (Samakal, 3 September 2021). The halls are being opened in phases. The question is whether the government has enough vaccines for all the students to get their jab.

It is not clear what decision the other universities have taken. Dhaka University halls have the so-called ‘gono rooms’ (mass rooms) which places the fate of a huge number of students in the hands of the ruling party’s student organisation. If Dhaka University takes this opportunity to shut down this inhuman system, that at least will be a positive outcome. Politically speaking it cannot be hoped that these students would be spared. But can’t the authorities do anything for these students in consideration of their lives and in public interest?

* Author, Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor at the department of politics and government, Illinois State University, USA, non-resident fellow of the Atlantic Council and president of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies

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