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Students are the silent victims of pandemic

Rayhan Ahmed Topader:


Pandemic has disrupted education systems around the world, pushing the majority of children temporarily out of school. With close to 40 million children enrolled in school, Bangladesh is among the countries most affected by a complete shutdown. With all schools closed for a period of at least two months, the immediate challenge for the policymakers therefore is safeguarding learning time and well-being while children remain out of school. Regardless of its impact on household poverty, the Coronavirus pandemic will directly impact learning outcomes by reducing time spent in learning activities, in and out of school. While in-school disruption is universal, out-of-school learning deprivation will vary depending on socio-economic status of the household, access to technology, and parental capabilities. There is likely to be gendered response in terms of children’s learning needs at home as well. If unaddressed, the sudden nationwide shutdown also risks reversing some of the earlier achievements with improved access to education such as close to universal primary school enrolment and attainment of gender parity in secondary education. This project will gather primary data through a multi- respondent survey.Around 42 million children continue to be affected by Covid-19′ school closures in Bangladesh, leaving students with little option but to rely on remote learning. However, not all students have access to digital technology and in many cases, students find virtual classes fall short of their expectations and learning needs.

In a recent focus group discussion with UNICEF, students representing all eight divisions in Bangladesh unanimously agreed that while remote learning is helping them remain in touch with their academic studies, it is fraught with many challenges

Since schools closed in March 2020, nearly 38 million students in Bangladesh have missed out on the opportunity to receive proper learning and interact with their peers, which has affected their education experience. Courtesy: World Bank

Since educational institutions closed last March, nearly 38 million students in Bangladesh have missed out on the opportunity to receive proper learning and interact with their peers, which has affected their education experience. To help students deal with the adverse impacts of school closures, the Government of Bangladesh introduced remote learning through television, mobile phones, radio, and the Internet. But not all students have access to these resources. A World Bank study finds that access to these alternative learning methods and their uptake has been low. Of the surveyed school children (aged 5-15),  less than 50 percent have access to radios, computers, and televisions, respectively . Nearly all of them have access to mobile phones, but many don’t have access to the Internet.The study also found a digital divide between rich and poor households. When compared with the richest families, 9.2 percent of the poorest had access to televisions vs 91 percent for the richest.  A similar trend exists across the other alternative learning mediums. Another survey shows that of the 21 percent of households with access to online learning programs, only 2 percent used them.Pre-pandemic estimates showed 58% of Bangladeshi children did not achieve minimum reading proficiency by grade 5. It’s estimated this figure will increase to 76% during school closures.Pre-pandemic estimates based on the World Bank’s Human Capital Index-2020 show that a Bangladeshi child starting school at age 4 expects to complete on average 10.2 years of school by age 18.

But a more accurate estimation is the Learning Adjusted Years of Schooling (LAYS) figure, as it considers the quality of learning received by students during this period, which for this age group is around 6 years. Based on a simulation tool developed by the World Bank Education Global Practice, the COVID-19 induced school closures is estimated to result in a loss of between 0.5 and 0.9 years of learning-adjusted schooling for an average student. Pre-pandemic estimates also showed that 58 percent of Bangladeshi children did not achieve the minimum reading proficiency by the end of grade 5. It’s estimated that this figure will increase to 76 percent during the school closures. The COVID-19 pandemic will likely translate into a substantial long-term economic cost. Quantifying the loss of learning in terms of labor market returns, the average Bangladeshi student will face a reduction around $335 in yearly earnings, which represents almost 6.8 percent of their annual income. Aggregated for all students in Bangladesh and projected 10 years into the future when all graduates have entered the labor market, this would cost the country’s economy up to $114 billion in GDP at net present value. Ensure access to learning tools: The Government of Bangladesh has taken swift decisions with the multi-modal remote learning delivery. Now it’s important to make these platforms fully functional through content development and mass delivery. Since digital learning may not be a feasible option for the poorest families, other methods may be employed including physical learning packages, mobile-based lessons or face-to-face classes maintaining social distance and protocols. Offer effective remedial learning opportunities:

Remedial education to help students catch up when schools re-open coupled with preparing teachers to teach at the right level will also be necessary to mitigate the losses  sustained during the period of school closure. To ensure this, the first step is to assess student learning when they return to classrooms and to identify learning loss through formative assessment on literacy and numeracy competencies. We must reduce additional dropouts and absenteeism once schools open, through stipends, safe school reopening and communication campaigns. Stipends will help to bring back and retain children from poorer families. Parents and communities will play an important role in building confidence and improving the school re-opening process. Communication campaigns through different mediums will be essential in ensuring that learning continues while schools are closed and when they re-open. With schools shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, most children are now confined to their homes. But many of them are still the victims of the virus, as they are spending maximum time in front of screens these days be it mobile phones, laptops or TV, say experts. According to the experts, children and their gadgets are inseparable today, and this could be dangerous for their mental and physical health. Prolonged isolation due to lockdown-related restrictions that are forcing them to stay indoors. And the urban children are the most affected.Feeling isolated can lead to poor sleep, poor cardiovascular health, lower immunity, depressive symptoms, and impaired executive function, the American Psychological Association said in a recent study on the mental health of children, in a post-Covid world.

In Bangladesh, the government ordered the closure of all educational institutions on March 17 last year after the country confirmed its first Covid-19 cases on March 8.The closure has been extended several times in the past year. As education boards across the country could not hold exams, all the students were promoted, based on the evaluation of their previous test results. But parents claim their stay-at-home wards have become addicted to gadgets over the past one year, keeping in touch with their friends on social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp, studying and playing games on laptops or computers, or connecting with acquaintances on mobile phones-all at the cost of their health.The overuse of gadgets, Farjana said, seemed to be taking a toll on the health of her children. Gadgets and social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp are keeping both my children awake too late.We never got the opportunity to use gadgets in our childhood, probably that’s the reason why we are still fit and fine,” she added.According to the latest National Adolescent Health and Wellbeing Survey, more than 90% of adolescents use mobile phones in Bangladesh.The primary objective of the survey was to examine and understand the state of health and well-being of male and female adolescents. Seven out of 10 unmarried boys own a mobile phone.Almost half of the unmarried males and one-fifth of married and unmarried female adolescents access the internet at least once a week, the survey report said.According to Dr SM Aman of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK, research suggests that prolonged cell phone exposure could affect children’s behaviour.The children in the study who were hyperactive or had emotional or behavioural problems.

Also including trouble getting along with other kids, were much more likely to have mothers who used cell phones during pregnancy. Children use cell phones to watch TV, play games, make phone calls and send text messages. Many older kids and teens have their own cell phones, which they are attached to 24/7 hours. But are there risks to such frequent use by children, and if so is that different than the risks for adults? The alumnus of Rajshahi Medical College said cell phones emit microwave radiation. There have been concerns from the scientific community about whether or not cell phones are safe. Cancer is a particular concern, but since cancers take 10-20 years to develop and children’s frequent cell phone use is a relatively recent development, there are more questions than answers. Many expert said adolescents use devices especially mobile phones at least six or seven hours daily while at home. Overusing the gadgets creates pressure on the brain that raises mental and physical health risks.So, adolescents should play games in the playground instead. Other experts urged parents to step in and use the opportunity to enhance family bonding with their children.Many Hospital authorities said that cutting off from the rest of the community for a long time usually has a detrimental impact on the psychological well-being of children. Detachment from normal activities pushes children into a state of crisis that may increase the risk of psychiatric disorders that can lead to an acute stress disorder, adjustment disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder and attention-deficit disorder.But good parenting skills become particularly crucial when children are confined to their homes. Home confinement could offer a good opportunity to enhance the interaction between parents and children.Finally, we need to leverage partnerships between government, non-government, private sector, and civil society in managing education delivery during and after the crisis.

It will be important to continue to collaborate and bring expertise together in finding solutions to ensure learning continues for the poorest children, prepare teachers for post-pandemic classrooms, develop effective remedial education model and bring additional resources to build back better and support the infrastructures for a resilient education system.These actions can be the first step towards creating a resilient education system and will potentially kickstart the road to recovering from losses sustained during the pandemic.

Writer and Columnist