Recovering from pandemic-induced loss to education

Recovering from pandemic-induced loss to education

The third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic propelled by its Omicron variant looks imminent. The damage to the global economy done by the first two waves is being calculated by governments, businesses and multilateral agencies. Since economic activities are quantifiable, losses to them can be measured more or less accurately. But the pandemic's impact on society has been wide-ranging. And the fallout from this in many sectors cannot be measured directly. For example, the loss to education caused by the pandemic cannot be measured in the way it can be done for business. However, some indirect way such as the World Bank (WB)-developed one in 2018, the 'Learning Adjusted Year of Schooling (LAYS) seeks to combine access and learning outcomes into a single measure. Basically, it is a tool used by funders to compare outcomes of interventions made through various donor-funded projects.

Though it is actually a funders' approach to determine what value the money they spent in a particular time in the education projects could generate, one can still have an idea about the extent of knowledge students could gather through schooling. This metric could be applied to measure the loss to human capital in Bangladesh society through prolonged closure of the schools over the months since the pandemic hit in the early March of 2020. Estimates done on a regional scale by WB in South Asia, however, showed that the LAYS-related loss in the region fell to 5.5 years from the pre-Covid benchmark of 6.5 years or about a year's loss according to this metric. In terms of the earnings students have been deprived of through lost year of schooling and as such, learning, would amount to USD1 trillion. As students are not earning at the moment, the estimate is a projected loss.

In fact, due to the lost year, students would graduate a year later than they would if there was no Covid and thereby lose one year's earning opportunity. The humongous loss figure of WB-estimate only points to the scale of damage to the economy the Covid has inflicted in consequence of the school closures assuming that some 391 million students in South Asia were out of school. The breakdown of the figure for Bangladesh's case is not hard to calculate and, of course, it would come out to an enormous amount. Perhaps, it would be more, considering that the closures the Bangladeshi schools have experienced is one of the longest (close to two years) so far. And now the Omicron variant of the Covid-19 is sweeping across the globe. And it has already begun to trickle into Bangladesh. But given the speed with which this variant of the pandemic is reported to have been spreading elsewhere, the present trickle, it is feared, may not take long to turn into a powerful gush. It is further reported that the variant in question is not as fatal as the Covid's previous version, the Delta. In that case, we would have to keep our fingers crossed in the hope that schools could then be kept open. Otherwise, the loss to economy and society will only continue to multiply.

Going by the WB's calculation in monetary terms, it will be beyond comprehension. However, everything in life cannot be monetised. Education is one such thing. In fact, the psychological trauma suffered by students as a consequence of dislocation with normal, frolicsome school life cannot be measured in monetary terms. Many children have suffered mental breakdown and it would be a bruise they will have to carry throughout the rest of their lives. It is also a source of great pain for their parents. If the lockdown is imposed again to combat Omicron leading to another round of school closure as already hinted by some government functionaries, God help our children!

Considering the gravity of the issue, the government, the education ministry, in particular, would do well to have second thoughts on the matter and see to it that the schools are not closed under any circumstances. In fact, the state of education in the schools was hardly ever up to the mark. The reasons ranged from the inadequacy of funds allocated for primary and secondary level education to the quality of instructions imparted to students, especially, in the rural backwater. Add to that the process of rural pauperisation ascribable to ever-widening economic disparity. In consequence, the phenomenon of school dropout was already there.The pandemic has only made matters worse.

That brings us to the issue of going beyond the Covid-inflicted losses to education. The fund, for example, earmarked for education, though increased in proportion to the total budget in the current fiscal is actually lower than the previous fiscal's, if calculated as percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In fact, it was 2.09 per cent of the GDP in FY21. In 35 OECD countries in 2017, for instance, the percentage was 4.9 per cent of their GDPs. Though Bangladesh would take some more time to reach their level, the reference is still relevant considering that soon Bangladesh will graduate to a middle-income economy. To compensate the education sector for the pandemic-inflicted loss, the government will be required to take aggressive measures. That may include earmarking additional fund for education which can be utilised for providing incentives to school teachers, increasing their quality of instruction through training, extending enhanced IT support to rural schools and so on. It may be mentioned at this point that rural schools and their students, compared to their urban counterparts, were relatively at the receiving end during the past Covid months. Efforts should, therefore, be made to avoid that kind of situation in case the government decides to go for school closures for the second time in the face of any surge in infection due to the Omicron.

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