Teachers of government schools of Belabo Upazila in Narsingdi, only 71 kilometres from the capital Dhaka, are offering online classes in line with the education ministry’s instructions. But the response to the initiative has been lukewarm amid the pandemic.
The attendance has not exceeded five per cent even though the lessons are being streamed live on Facebook, according to Islam Uddin, acting headmaster of Dewaner Char High School.
The picture is much the same in other districts.
A child journalist of bdnews24.com’s Hello asked Sakibul Hasan, a third-grader at Khardwar Government Primary School in Bagerhat, why he was not attending the online classes.
“I can’t do it because we don’t have a big phone [smartphone],” he replied.
“How can I buy a phone when I am unable to pay the house rent properly?” Sakibul’s father Md Shahin said.
The boy is lagging behind his classmates in their studies, Sakibul’s mother Salma Begum lamented.
About 10 per cent of parents are estimated to have smartphones, but not all of them have a WiFi connection, while it takes a lot of money to buy mobile internet data to attend four classes a day – each spanning around 25 minutes, Islam Uddin said.
The teachers have also complained about poor network coverage and power outages, which are reducing the attendance numbers.
“We are not getting a significant response from the students. Only three to four students are coming to attend a single class,” Islam said.
The government followed in the footsteps of private educational institutions by launching online classes after the country went into lockdown in mid-March. Remote lessons are also being broadcast on Sangsad TV.
Bayezid, a student of Shalmara Primary School in Lalmonirhat’s Aditmari Upazila, said he did not have much of a concept of remote learning.
“We can’t watch Sangsad TV because only one out of every 100 households in our village has a television. Internet connection is also very poor here. It will be better for us if the schools reopen and we attend classes in person,” he said.
Pupils in the cities are mostly reaping the benefits of remote learning amid the pandemic while those in the small towns and villages are hamstrung by a lack of mobile devices and access to the internet – a reality that has brought the issue of income inequality to the fore.
The effects of the pandemic and the shutdown on low-income groups will lead to a sharp increase in the dropout rate, educationists have warned.
“Online classes are going on in the schools here. We will also start it in our school from next week. But the students are not able to attend classes as they don't have smartphones and adequate networking availability,” said Rimel Chakma, a fourth-year undergrad of Rangamati Government College, who works as a teacher of a private school in Langadu.
The schools and colleges in the district are organising online classes, but poor network coverage has hampered the lessons, he added.
The same reasons have kept attendances under 30 per cent in classes held on Facebook live, said Durga Prasad Sarker Sudip, a student of Barishal Government BM College.
In Sherpur’s Nakla Upazila, Baneshwardi Khandakerpara Government Primary School has failed to arrange the online classes even after training its teachers on it. The teachers do not have suitable devices, said Rashida Begum, an assistant teacher, told bdnews24.com.
Mofiz Uddin Kobiraj, principal of Mohanpur Government College in Rajshahi, however, believes most of the students can afford devices and internet connections if they want to.
“Poverty is obviously a problem, but many students are not attending online classes because they are not used to it. They feel lazy,” he said.
But Islam, headmaster of the school in Belabo, believes social inequality will force many students in the rural areas to drop out.
“I’ve seen many students pedalling rickshaws or driving autorickshaws. Many students of even classes seven and eight got married during the pandemic,” he said.
“I am selling bidis and cigarettes because the school is closed due to the coronavirus and my family is struggling to make ends meet,” Akram Hossain, 12, told a Hello journalist at Feni Railway Station.
Professor Abdul Mannan, a former chairman of the University Grants Commission, believes it will be hard for the education sector to recover the loss of learning. “No plan is visible yet,” he said.
The dropout rate will rise significantly in the coming days as low-income households are marrying off the girls while the boys have begun helping their parents earn money, according to him.
“A large number of these students have no possibility of returning to their studies. Many are becoming addicted to drugs,” Mannan said.
Mohibul Hassan Chowdhoury, deputy minister for education, admitted that many students lack access to the technology required to attend online classes.
“We are giving lessons via TV as well. But we all know that this platform is not connecting with not everyone. It can never be compared to the traditional in-person schooling,” Chowdhoury told bdnews24.com.
“We have to repeat the year," he said of the plan. It means that the students of class six will be promoted to the next grade but they will have to repeat the lessons of the previous year once the schools reopen.
The government will assess the situation at the end of winter to determine when to reopen the educational institutions, the deputy minister said.