The schedules for opening educational institutions have by now been postponed for uncountable times. In-person classes for students were supposed to begin with reopening of schools and colleges on May 23 but the opening date has been deferred one after another and lately the closure has been extended up to June 29 next. By this time though, the capital city has been virtually cut off from the rest of the country with enforcement of lockdown in seven of Dhaka Division's districts. This decision has been prompted by an alarming surge of Covid-19's Indian Delta variant in a number of Indo-Bangladesh border areas.
The indication is that educational institutions cannot open soon much as the authorities, students and their parents may wish. Now the highly crucial issue facing students, particularly the SSC and HSC candidates, is their promotion. The authorities insist that there will be no 'auto pass', the much maligned system of issuing certificate without proper examinations. They are determined to arrange 60 days' in-person classes for SSC candidates and 80 days' classes for HSC candidates on shortened syllabi. Even if this plan comes into effect, the question will linger whether the candidates will learn enough to catch up with the next level of education.
The authorities claim they have informed teachers of schools and colleges to make their students prepared for the two in-person public examinations. This means teachers will have to be in constant touch with students about the progress of their studies. Online or virtual classes will have to be emphasised further to strengthen the teacher-student contact before their classes begin for 60 or 80 days. This was the stand of the education ministry and the education boards until the last month. Apart from those offered by some select schools and colleges, online classes are simply a misnomer. The authorities were of the view that the in-person classes would be held even if it necessitated deferment of examinations by two months. According to the plan, the SSC exam was supposed to be held in September or October and the HSC by the end of the year. After the in-person classes, candidates were supposed to get two weeks' break before their examinations.
Now can this schedule be maintained in the changed situation? The way the Delta variant is wreaking havoc, there is little possibility of sticking to the plan. Already the education minister has hinted that educational institutions cannot be opened if the rate of infection does not come down below 5.0 per cent. Right now the infection rate is above 20 per cent and in the border areas above 50 per cent. On Wednesday, at least one area reported 100 per cent positivity. This is particularly alarming. Is the country heading for an India-like scenario?
In that case, life and livelihoods are likely to be seriously disrupted let alone considering the prospect of opening schools, colleges and universities. The education minister referred to alternative measures for evaluation of candidates but she had no such system in mind. There was indeed a time when educational institutions could be opened without much risk following a series of protective protocols. Now things have become more uncertain than before.
The message is clear: a stitch in time saves nine. When the Delta variant was taking India by storm, Bangladesh was enjoying relatively low rates of infection and death. Had the country been on guard and sealed off the border tightly with deployment of more members of the border guards, the country might not have come to this pass now. How porous the border was is evident from the fact that TikTok victims and their traffickers could easily move between the two countries. Even a few of the victims fled their captors in Bengaluru to cross the border.
To save life, livelihoods and education, the prerequisite is to check the spread of the virus. Once it takes over, the entire nation becomes helpless before it. Students have suffered for no fault of their own. They must be helped out of this helpless condition. Since people are engaged in most of their daily chores in the country's largest areas, villages in particular, let in-person classes be held even if the exercise is on a limited scale. Excepting the areas where the surge of the virus is alarming, a teachers' brigade can be formed not only with school and college teachers but also with tutors who have served at coaching centres and university students or who have completed studies but sitting idle.
They may take classes of students of smaller groups three days a week or on alternate days. In certain cases, if situation permits, they may visit a particularly convenient open compound to take classes of students residing in the same neighbourhood. This is exactly how closer attention can be paid to at least the studies of the SSC and HSC candidates. Such a programme can be further updated and extended depending on on-field experiences and other conditions. What is needed most is a strong motivation and required initiatives to carry out the programme. If the authorities are serious about avoiding loss of an academic year/years and 'auto pass', they must take such measures to intensify student-teacher contact and exchanges.