The Financial Express

School closures near tipping point

School closures near tipping point

The message is clear. The teachers and guardians across the world cannot afford to see another phase of school students' prolonged absence from in-school classes. Nor can they remain satisfied with the limited online school attendance. The corona-prompted disruptions caused to school children's learning have now begun bordering on desperation. The Unicef and many other education scenario watchers have lately come up with their surveys. The results are filled with gloom andforeboding about the uncertainties facing these innocent child learners. With the Covid-19 pandemic closures of school completing a full year, time has arrived to make a grim conclusion. According to academic analysts, given the still-worsening situation in the area both the teachers and authorities can find themselves in a quandary. The plain truth is the schools, the managements and the national policymakers can now ill afford to be burdened anymore with the spectre of academically stunted students. The reality is starkly unconscionable.

As a new Unicef data reveals, the schools meant for over 168 million children worldwide remained completely closed for almost a whole year due to Covid-19 lockdowns. At the same time, about 214 million children globally have missed more than three-quarters of their in-person classes. It can be interpreted this way: only a tiny percentage was able to remain in touch with their lessons online, especially in the urban areas, and those having uninterrupted internet connection.

The UN body's survey shows that globally 14 countries have remained veritably closed from March 2020 to February 2021. The schools of Bangladesh, however, are set to open partially at the end of May this year. According to Unicef, two-thirds of these countries are located in Latin America and the Caribbean. The closures are feared to have impacted on nearly 98 million school children. Unicef survey finds that of the 14 countries, Panama has kept its schools closed for the longest stretch of time, followed by El Salvador, Bangladesh and Bolivia. The Unicef Executive Director has rightly pointed out a critical aspect of the worldwide survey. She has coined it as 'education emergency'. "As we approach the one-year mark of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are again reminded of the catastrophic education emergency worldwide lockdowns have created. With every day that goes by, children unable to access in-person schooling fall further and further behind, with the most marginalised paying the heaviest price," Executive Director HenriettaFore elucidated.

As she has viewed it, the world cannot afford to move into year two of limited or even no in-school learning for these children. She has emphasised that no effort should be spared to keep schools open, or prioritise them in reopening the institutions. The Unicef is forthright in saying that globally more than 888 million children continue to face disruptions to their education due to "full and partial school closures".

Bangladesh education authorities have evaluated the situation for a considerably longer time. That they haven't made any haste in resuming in-school classes have ample reasons. Unlike in the developed countries, the number of students in Bangladesh schools is astronomically higher --- especially in the rural areas. Even during normal times, the school authorities find it challenging to keep track of the students, let alone attending to the students' curricular activities. The country's schools, colleges and universities were declared closed with the very onset of the pandemic in March, 2020. Following the closure of over a year, its schools have taken preparations to resume classes in a restrained manner from May 30 next. With online classes remaining on for the lower grades, in-school classes are set to resume for students of Class X to class XII. The reason the authorities have attached importance to the higher-grade classes is preparations for their approaching final exams.

Except these students, the others have to attend classes in gaps. The arrangement has apparently been made to maintain health protocols in schools --- and stave off the feared onslaughts of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the government's mass vaccination programme is now especially focused on school teachers. It proves the authorities' eagerness to see the students attending in-school classes remain safe. Apart from the teachers, the schools' general staff members are also required to be vaccinated. The education authorities' bid to see the country's schools fully functioning is beyond all shades of doubt. But like the many pandemic-hit poorer countries, Bangladesh, too, faces a lot of inherent loopholes. It could resume its in-school curricula months ago, with the elusive signs of decline in the Covid-19 cases. There is a catch. Rich countries can afford to declare their schools open on being convinced that the pandemic is over for now. They can also close those institutions again after a return of the pandemic in a couple of months. The developed nations have the means to get along with unpredictable behaviour of the raging pandemic, the virus of which continues to mutate and keeps spawning new strains. Moreover, online classes are affordable by students in those countries. Except those living in the cities like Dhaka and Chattogram, the students living in backwater regions find easy access to online classes a pipedream of sorts. However, it's heartening to see the government's readiness to focus on the critical national issue of re-opening its schools and, eventually, resuming in-school classes.

For students studying in lower classes, overcoming the hurdles created by the long closure may not be difficult. Their tender mind knows how to adapt to newer realities, as they have a long stretch of time to overcome their short spells of trauma. For older students who have gone through a year-long phase of psychological void, complete recuperation might prove difficult. Until they can manage to get back the lost ends of the tether of their student career, they may have to suffer indefinitely; and perform badly in the near future. One hopes the authorities have kept this truth in mind.     


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