If one feels eager to have an idea of the urban street children during the coronatime, he or she will encounter a lot of scenarios. All of them speak of the carefree times these teenagers are engaged in. There are myriad sights. Beginning from flying kites, playing cricket in a derelict playground, swimming and splashing in lakes, playing marbles to climbing trees are common with boys. Shabbily clothed girls with dishevelled reddish hair do not lag behind. Despite moving together, sometimes they engage in girlish games like 'ekka-dokka'. Playing 'ludo' or improvised chess also comprises the teenagers' fun-time. A terrible scene emerges when some of them are found 'sniffing glues', a widespread addiction. Many are found deep asleep under a tree at parks.
These apparently well-known scenes of frolicking teenage children are now commonplace in every part of the capital. They have been in place since the Dhaka and other cities' residents came under the corona-prompted shutdown. The shutdown has recently been relaxed. But all kinds of educational institutions still remain closed. A handful of them, mostly upscale ones, have made makeshift arrangements of online classes and examinations. The rest are eons away from these facilities.
It's only a limited number of adolescents whose movements are constantly monitored by their guardians. The leisure-time they are allowed to enjoy is mostly passed inside their homes or in the close neighbourhoods. At times they can take stroll on open roofs. Barring them, the other city-based boys and girls have ample free time, mostly passed in unlimited fun. They bother little about regular studies and examinations. Many of them are students of private or below par government schools. Those whom they pass time with throughout the day are the boys and girls who have never gone to a school. Generally, the latter are looked down upon as street children.
According to experts dealing with teenage behavioural patterns, the country is going through a critical time. The way lots of teenagers, both school-going and loitering, are made to pass their time may eventually emerge as a national crisis. That the street children's prolonged floating state carries the potential for their going astray is implied. They have never faced such a plight. During normal times, they have at least a semblance of earning a living. With many mainstream urban activities still ground to a stalemate, they find their earlier sources of income virtually shut. It doesn't require in-depth research to conclude that these mostly homeless children finally discover themselves in a great void. Unlike their school-going counterparts, they have no future worth looking forward to.
As a consequence, a lot of them turn vulnerable to getting sucked into the world of questionable activities. Finally they find themselves amid a world peopled by the forces of darkness. This process of being devoured by a void continues unabated until they get lost in it for ever. A stark lack of guidance at the policy making level aggravates the situation. A number of social observers have already forecast the fallout brewing in the prolongation of the vacuum before the teenage students. Despite their dream of returning to school one day, the school-going boys and girls do not consider themselves much different from the street children. It's because in the ongoing uncertainties caused by the threat of a second wave of the current pandemic keep them confused. Prospects are elusive and signs are little that their dream will come true soon.
Still remaining in an exiled situation, that too for an indefinite period, the students expect quite rationally that their unbearable ordeal is going to be over soon. It all depends on the policy makers' ability to make out the right meaning from the signs filled with obscurity and indecisions.
As the reality demonstrates, there are little signs that the country's education sector is going to get back its curricular activities in the immediate future. The final say in this regard depends on the authorities' capability to scrutinise the ongoing pandemic situation; and then arrive at an effective conclusion. The reason some people spend their energy in the painstaking appraisal of the country's school-level education sector is not difficult to gauge. First and foremost, this particular stage of education is filled with volatilities. This is the time when a section of unsupervised students drop out from formal education under one or another pretext. According to experts, the authorities concerned ought to remain prepared to face this dreadful development whenever it shows signs of raising its head.
As days draw on, teenage school students look fatigued and spent. The earlier buoyancy appears to have left many of them. Amidst this situation, how many students will be able to withstand the jolts of a feared second wave of COVID-19 is a subject that warrants high-level plans and strategies. A darker aspect is those who will drop out might be sucked into a world where school studies are an anathema. This is purely a grey zone dominated by the lure of bohemianism, unconventional lifestyle, which at times verges on social unacceptability, and, finally, a roguish life. According to social analysts, it's the students in classes between seventh and eighth grades who are prone to be afflicted by the drop-out fever. Once it starts, the trend might spread like another 'pandemic'.
The scourge of school dropout has plagued the country's education sector, especially in villages, for ages. Parental poverty would emerge a great hindrance to students' continuation of their studies. On the other hand, the temptation to lead a studies and exams-free life used to wean off lots of students. Thanks to the scores of government programmes containing elements to keep students at school began working wonders. Apart from mid-day meals at the primary schools, the secondary schools introduced stipends, especially for the girl students. Moreover, appearing successfully in the primary-level PSC and the secondary-level JSC examinations and being awarded the relevant certificates retained many students. Yet a sizeable number of students grew an unexplainable apathy towards school studies. Had not the government introduced the special rewards for continuing studies, the rate of school dropouts in Bangladesh might have reached an alarming level by this time. Ironically, the prevailing adverse situation and the long shutdown have reopened the path to a plethora of scourges.
Academics and public education experts have already started bracing for the worse. What they fear most is the dropped out students' turning back to the dismal past. It was the time when Bangladesh school students' dropout rate would be compared with those of many LDCs (least developed countries).
Teenage boys and girls who have never been to school have a different story to tell. The only worry debilitating them is the feared reappearance of the corona pandemic and a fresh spate of unemployment. During the last shutdown, many of them had to resort to begging as there was an acute dearth of manual work. The dreaded return of the corona pandemic may lead to a similar plight awaiting these out-of-school teenagers. Adolescence is a delicate age. With food beyond their reach, a few of them may not be able to resist their urge to become violent, and direct their anger towards those properly fed. The authorities ought to be aware of this grim turn of things much in advance.
The earlier nationwide shutdown was prompted by a determination to keep the deadly virus under control. The decision to declare educational institutions closed to stave off possible infections caused by the coronavirus was a wise one. But few appear to have weighed the impacts of the prolonged closure on students. The introduction of online education has veritably failed to bail the school education out. With school closures now bogged down in the 'indefinite culture', the teenage students are set to go through more bouts of uncertainties. It's time to devise a crash programme to save these students' budding careers.