The Financial Express

Continuing classes during pandemic

Continuing classes during pandemic

The Covid-19 outbreak has disrupted the academic year, cancelled classes and examinations of students across the globe. Thus the educational institutions moved classes online encouraging students to attend lectures via electronic devises. This has also sparked a debate on whether the increased amount of screen time helps students learn or if it impedes their progress.

Children are habituated to screens like television, mobile or computer long before the pandemic. Some have been using the screen for a long time in a day. Eye experts say, looking at the screen for long periods of time can be harmful and that doesn't seem to be a healthy way of learning. In addition to the impact on their health, online learning from home is a kind of isolation and a lonely experience for the child. They don't have their peers around them and they need to learn themselves without any consultation. Even the teachers' role has becomes limited. Children do not get any direct supervision that they would get in a classroom. Parents are also busy with their own work for which they get a very little time to supervise the online learning exercise of their children. Again disparities are very high among the students : those who have access to online facilities and those who do not have. Some are actually missing their lessons. Though some families may have access to digital technology, there might not be enough devices for the personal use of all the family members. The parents may be working from home and need to use their computers. So each household needs to have several devises so that they can allocate devises among all of the family members for accessing virtual platform. Multiple issues of online learning are now a big concern.

It is not just about computers and smart phones, even watching TV amounts to screen time. Experts say, education is not just about information or content delivered to students via screens. Education should be considered as a matter of social interaction with peers and teachers in a school.  Since online classes have begun, all social interactions with peers and teachers have been cut out. The cognitive development of a child only can be possible by face-to-face human contact, a job that machines cannot do. How the school can actually be made into a space that would be a hub of social interactions for their cognitive and social development rather than turning completely to online learning is a million dollar question. Some say it would be difficult to make children sit in the classroom wearing masks without touching it including touching other children and their masks. Students need training and awareness about using new fabrics like masks, hand gloves and health hygiene practice.

Teachers are doing enough to develop better online modules, based on activities, but how many children are benefiting from it? The problem is that a marginalised child has no online facilities. A majority of the students who are unable to access technology during this pandemic may become drop-outs. This goes against their fundamental right to education.

However we know stopping online classes is not the solution. Instead, we need to work on providing technology to these students including disadvantaged children so that inclusiveness can be ensured. How we can make use of technology to help children continue with their studies and, for that purpose, provide them with smartphones and electronic tablets should be at a subject of high priority policy-level discussion.

During this pandemic, we need to improve our education system in such a way that we do not have to keep schools closed for a long time. At least 20% teachers in a by-turn roster system may attend school to do some necessary work for the students such as midterm exam preparation online and other course work.  (Exceptions include Red and Yellow zone). We need to make it possible for the students to have a safe study environment on virtual platform. Anyhow students need to understand or have a sense that teachers are with them always to meet their need. Teachers are ready to give those instructions and study materials via email, if they need those.  Teachers need to be in touch with the students and their guardians via email. The virtual class in this crisis time is not just about online instruction on study materials, but also about preparing students to deal with health and hygiene issues  and about how to protect themselves, their family and their society at large.

On the other hand, education experts of the world say that during pandemics, schools can be opened in a staggered manner where possible, with 50.0 per cent students attending every alternate day where situation is not so critical. This will help avoid crowded classrooms and allow students to utilise both the options of face-to-face schooling every alternate day or once-in-a-week and online class on the other day.  Temperature checks of teachers, students and non-teaching staff should become mandatory during face-to-face class. Social distancing should be followed strictly by teachers and students. Thus it will open the opportunities for marginalized students as they might not have access to technology. We can create separate safe spaces for these children.

Another concern is distribution of new books to the students during the pandemic. It is a matter of high challenge for the education department to distribute new books to the students. During our time, many of us, used to have old books from our elder siblings or senior students, relatives or sometimes through purchase. We left this practice because we now get new books each year. But the practice of buying old book is still in existence among many Australian and American students. There are a lot of websites in first world countries where old books are available for selling and buying. These sites are very popular among the students.  In Bangladesh, it is good to have new books each year. But during any pandemic or any natural calamity like flood, earthquake, cyclone etc. old students may be advised to return their books to their schools' head teachers, who may reallocate those books to new students. Most of the time a book remains quite usable for the next year. If our students are comfortable with idea, then distribution of new books may take place every alternate year.   A students will get new books means if he or she gets new books in class six, he/ she will get old books in class seven, and then in class eight new books will be provided subject to his/her returning the  old books to the teacher after the final examinations. Cash transfer for new school dress (school uniform) for rural students may be deemed as a school incentive option during the pandemic.

Finally, students and their study should not be overlooked during the pandemic even for a single day. Who knows when normalcy will come back? Educationist from their experiences say, if someone is made to discontinue or is out of study for a while, it causes irreparable damage to the students' study program.


Dr Md. Shamsul Arefin is a former senior secretary.


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