A couple of months ago, the campaign on ‘Safe back to Schools’, strongly urged the reopening of schools. The campaigners presented some statistics on school days lost, children’s mental well-being and some other facts. The education minister was present during the launching of the campaign arranged by some of the leading development agencies and she pragmatically shared the government’s stance on opening of educational institutions. In the first two months of this year the campaigners were very active in social media and other platforms. Coincidentally students of some educational institutions also started demonstrations for opening of educational institutions. And the ministry of education later on agreed to open the educational institutions in May 2021.
But suddenly we are now facing the second wave of the pandemic and almost every day the number of deaths surplus the previous records. Everyone is tense and bit panicked and government has declared a lockdown to tackle the situation. It is certainly a reasonable decision to keep everything shut to control the rapid transmission of the virus across the country. Health experts anticipated that the current trend may continue up to the May-June period and it may push back further the opening of educational institutions.
In fact, educational institutions have been closed since the advent of COVID in March 2020 and in the meantime we have seen that both government and non-government educational institutions have been trying to offer online classes for students. Certainly there are questions about quality of online classes, effectiveness etc. but I feel bit surprised to see that the campaigners have calmed and quieted down. It seems they are also waiting for better times to re-start the campaign.
Personally I believe we have to accept this lockdown as a golden opportunity to fulfill the recommendations that came out in the last few months about the ‘potential safe schools/educational institutions’. We have been demanding to make the educational institutions sorts of ‘geo-bubble’ status like the sports authorities around the globe are applying because of COVID. Truly speaking, we cannot anticipate a proper time when to have the schools’ ‘pre-Covid’ era, so we should concentrate on making the schools ‘COVID sensible’ with our efforts, especially to refurbish the existing wash facilities and making a culture of good hygiene practices.
I had the opportunity to attend some of the campaign events and roundtables with educationists, physicians, policy makers and students and found that everyone has been giving importance on proper preparedness before school re-opening and also emphasized on the investment to ensure hygiene and other measures to make up for the lost time in studies. There was urge to government to offer stimulus package for the education sector to have the healthy environment to welcome the physical presence of students again.
The government has also committed to offer vaccination for all those are engaged in education facilities, e.g. teachers, education authorities and older students. Now we have to assess how much progress we could make in this regard
There are some areas we have to focus from now on and it depends on collective efforts of government, non-government, corporates, communities and students to make the educational institutions ‘COVID sensible’ and smart to handle any such situation. I can highlight some of the recommendations mentioned to make the educational institutions ready for re-opening.
1. Vaccination for teachers and students: The government has also committed to offer vaccination for all those are engaged in education facilities, e.g. teachers, education authorities and older students. Now we have to assess how much progress we could make in this regard. At the same time, need to think about setting up screening facilities to track regular health status of students, teachers and other education officials.
2. Enabled classrooms to ensure physical distancing: We have to make proper planning of students in each class and to ease the way, rotation wise classes could be taken to avoid mass gatherings in the educational institutions.
3. Re-furbishing the washroom facilities: There is no argument about the importance of repairing, retrofitting of the existing washroom facilities of the educational institutions. In fact, there is no basic difference between a ‘public toilet’ and those of any educational institutions and the current pandemic re-emphasised the importance of having clean and healthy washroom facilities for all the educational institutions.
4. Investing more for blended approach of education: It is true that in the last one year, all ages of the students have some experience of on-line/virtual class facilities but time has come to rethink about the quality and effectiveness of the study curriculum. And we have to admit that virtual way of teaching became an integral part of our education systems and now to think how to make a smart way of blended education.
5. Innovating recreational items for students’ well-being at home and educational institutions: I would not suggest any statistics but cannot deny the mental well-being of the students as they could not meet their friends, missed playing together or even just spending time together. The education authorities should think about adding recreational items for students to enable them to share their feelings with their classmates or teachers in a positive way. It just requires insightful thinking to introduce something that would ensure students’ well-being.
6. Raising awareness through ‘geo-bubble' educational facilities: Education authorities should engage guardians, community and students in the process of making educational institutions safe and secured from virus outbreak. This should be a continuous process and corporates, civil society agencies and community could extend support to education facilities in this regard. Even when the government opens the educational institutions there would be anxiety and fear of physical attendance among the guardians and students.
7. Improved and safe transportation for the students: Public health experts identified two reasons for this current hike of virus in Bangladesh; one is over-populated market places and second one is the public transport. So, we have to start thinking now how would we ensure healthy and safe transportation of our students. It we fail to ensure proper transportation, then there would be chance of such virus spreading, ultimately resulting low turnout of students.
We need to have collective efforts from all to ensure a healthy and safe environment for students, teachers and educationists in the educational institutions and should not look only to government efforts but rather collective efforts of government, non-government, corporates and communities to invest for more of preparedness and making the educational institutions ready with appropriate handwashing facilities, ensuring proper messages of hygiene practice and trying to create a ‘culture of good health and hygiene behaviour’ to protect the generations from this loss of physical access. We have to accept the current lockdown as a good opportunity for better preparedness.
*Syed Matiul Ahsan is a development practitioner