As of 1 June 2020, globally, 1.2 billion learners (68.0 per cent of the world's total enrolled learners) were affected due to the education institute closure in 144 countries, according to UNESCO data. Bangladesh is no different. Since 17 March, all the educational institutes in the country have remained closed. Undeniably, the direct and most immediate impact of the Covid-19 on the education sector is the loss in learning opportunities. More than 36.0 million students (including 17.0 million in the primary) are now out of school. Finance minister AHM Mustafa Kamal, in his budget speech in the national parliament on Thursday, also said that Covid-19 has essentially caused discontinuation of the regular academic curriculum of around 40.0 million students across the country.
However, the loss in schooling hours is not the only impact looming out from the Covid-19 crisis. On top of learning, schools are also a vital source of social protection, nutrition, health as well as psychosocial supports to children and young adults. Therefore, on top of loss in learning, school closures have far-reaching impacts on social and economic issues such as school dropouts, digital divide, food insecurity and malnutrition, childcare, as well as disability services.
A broader and deeper consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic on the education sector might emerge from the economic downturns being ignited by the pandemic control measures. SANEM estimates based on the latest Household Income Expenditure Survey (HIES) shows that - before the crisis, 23.90 per cent (or 8.4 million) of the students' families were below the poverty line. As the crisis prolongs, assuming a three months long lockdown since 25 March, therefore a 25.0 per cent fall in annual per capita income, SANEM find that as many as 43.90 per cent of the students' families could fall below the poverty line (for primary: 51.70 per cent, secondary: 42.40 per cent; SSC/HSC: 30.20 per cent; and university: 19.0 per cent). Hence, there could be as many as 7.70 million additional students' families falling below the poverty line during this crisis, taking the total number of students below the poverty line to 16 million.
Such fallout in poverty from economic crises has long-term impacts. Emanating from the economic crisis there is a good chance that the country might see a resurface of higher rates of child-labours, child marriages, or even transactional sex for children and adolescents-all phenomenon leading to higher dropout rates. As a result, out of the 16.0 million students from poor families - many might never come to schools ever again. Note worthily, the dropout rate in Bangladesh is still too high for secondary (37.60 per cent) and post-secondary education (19.60 per cent, according to BANBEIS. Nevertheless, the impact would be disproportionately higher for female students.
The crisis could also be more threatening for students with special needs (around 39,000). Estimates from HIES data suggests that almost 24.50 per cent of the students with special needs are from poor families. Due to the pandemic, more than 45.0 per cent of such students' families might fall below the poverty line. However, irrespective of their income status, with school closures, these children, might face additional challenges than like no others. When deciding on continuation of education, they could be the first to be left out of the school system.
Nonetheless, there is also a nutrition aspect where this Covid-19 pandemic might hinder the progress. World Food Programme (WEP) estimates that the economic impact of malnutrition in Bangladesh sums up to $1.0 billion each year. To combat the challenge, the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) with technical assistance from the WFP runs a School Feeding Programme in 104 most poverty prone Upazilas in the country reaching nearly 3.0 million children. Since the beginning of the crisis in March, the GoB has managed to deliver the micronutrient enriched 'biscuits' to all recipients in bulk amount. However, as this support does not reach to the children out of school, if the dropout rates in the poverty-stricken areas increase due to the pandemic, this effort might fall short then.
After the pandemic, the crisis will not be any easy for the students remaining at school either. Due to fall in income at large, overall out-of-pocket expenditure in education will inevitably fall, particularly for the families from the lower-income deciles. Quality of teaching might also fall. Many students might shift from low-cost private schools to already over-burdened public schools. The low-cost private schools that serve the lower-middle-class families, and run on small margins, might face an existential crisis. Moreover, with a fall in pays, it could be the best teachers in schools who might switch jobs first.
In combating the loss in learning, one frequently suggested option is online teaching. However, going online for learning is not a feasible option for Bangladesh yet. There are around 5.0 per cent of the households who do not have a mobile phone (Fig 1 to 3: Source: MICS 2019). In the case of computer/tablet: only 5.60 per cent of the households have one. However, having computer/tablet is not sufficient: with only 37.60 per cent of the households having internet access at home (urban: 53.10 per cent and rural: 33.20 per cent) options for exploring this option seems bleaker. What's more, there is a clear regional and income dynamics at play here: rural areas and poorer regions have much less access to these ICT than the urban and richer regions. This is also true for poorer households. Based on the latest HIES and updating it to 2020, we could estimate that around 12.70 per cent of the poor households do not have a single mobile phone. With such a high digital divide, going online for all would only widen the existing gap in learning inequality.
As the crisis prolongs and the economic impact deepens, so does the future of millions of students: the lower the income deciles they are from, the grimmer looks their future. Socio-economic impacts stemming from Covid-19 will have long-term consequences. The lifetime income and productivity of the current age-cohort would be severely constrained if the government does not step in with bolstered short-term and long-term public policies as follows.
First, when opening up the schools, healthcare protocols should be strictly followed. WHO and the UNICEF has already prepared such guidelines. Many schools might not have proper hygiene facilities at all. It is high time the government facilitated adequate hygiene infrastructures even at the remote schools. The focus should be on developing good health behaviours such as covering coughs and sneezes with the elbow and washing hands frequently.
Second, ensuring return to school for each student. Active public policies such as revamping the existing stipend programmes, exploring the options for 'education loans', communication campaigns, active engagement with families in distress, etc. should be prioritised.
Third, supplementary nutrition programmes such as the school feeding programme and midday meal programmes should be rolled out nationally. Such measures might help to curb down the dropout rates as well.
Fourth, measures should be taken to reduce the digital divides across income groups as well as across regions.
Last, but most importantly, the government must increase allocation in education. Bangladesh's expenditure in education, both as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and as a percentage of total tax revenue is one of the lowest in the world (Fig 4). In 2016, Bangladesh spent around 1.5 per cent of GDP on education. In terms of total tax revenue, the country spent only 17.7 per cent on education. The scenario has not changed much over the years. Total allocation for education in the budget of FY21 is proposed at Tk 664.01 billion, which is an increase of 8.60 per cent over Tk 611.80 billion of the revised budget of FY20. Nevertheless, as a share of the total budget, the education budget decreased from 12.2 per cent in FY20 to 11.70 per cent in FY21. Again, the education budget as a share of GDP has decreased to 2.09 per cent in FY21 from 2.18 per cent in the revised budget of FY20.
When the pandemic crisis is prolonging, such contraction in education expenditure contrasts with what this sector needs. The pitfalls of low spending in this sector to mitigate the Covid impacts will be long-lasting. With so little to spare, the country might face more chronic 'long-term consequences' in this sector as an aftermath of the pandemic than the comparators. If the challenges are not addressed properly, the demographic dividend for Bangladesh might turn into a demographic burden in the future.
Combating the challenges would require a stronger collaboration between the Government, NGOs, and the development partners. However, it is the GoB who needs to take the lead in steering up from this crisis. If adequate actions are not taken now, it will be too late to correct it later.
The author is a Lecturer of Economics at the University of Dhaka and a Research Fellow at SANEM.