Educational institutions have remained closed for over a year in Bangladesh due to coronavirus. According to UNICEF, other than Bangladesh, 13 more countries have kept their educational institutions closed since March last year. But in South Asia, Bangladesh is the only country that has kept educational institutions closed at a stretch for over a year.
After the first Covid case in Bangladesh was detected, the government declared all educational institutions closed in the country from 17 March 2020. Everything else opened up on 30 May, but the reopening of educational institutions was repeatedly postponed. Finally it was declared that schools and colleges would reopen on 30 March and universities on 23 May. But with coronavirus spiking again in March, the government changed its decision again and declared that schools would reopen on 23 May. The question is, if this Covid wave is prolonged or intense, will the government remain firm in its decision?
It may be true that the transmission of Covid in the country is less than apprehended due to the closure of the educational institutions. But we have no idea what the rate of transmission would have been if the schools remained open. In Europe, infections soared after schools reopened and they had to shut the schools down again. But there is no scientific evidence that the opening of schools cause the rise in Covid transmission rates. For example, if schools had opened in February in Bangladesh, then many of us would perhaps ascribe this increased transmission rate in March to the reopening of schools.
The fact remains that coronavirus is not going away anytime soon. The United Nations has said it may turn into a seasonal ailment. So as part of the global village, it will be natural for Bangladesh to have a number of Covid-19 patients throughout the year. So would that mean educational institutions will remain shut forever? Certainly not. Formal education is the foundation of modern civilisation. And this is where coronavirus has struck the hardest.
When we calculated the economic losses of last year’s three-month lockdown, we didn’t take the closure of educational institutions into account. It is not easy to determine the losses caused by the closure of these institutions because of the multidimensional aspects of education
It does not seem that the economic, political and social fallout of the closure of educational institutions for over a year has caused us much concern. That is because the damages caused by this closure are not so visibly apparent as the closure of factories, roads, transport, hotels, restaurants and recreational centres. For example, when we calculated the economic losses of last year’s three-month lockdown, we didn’t take the closure of educational institutions into account. It is not easy to determine the losses caused by the closure of these institutions because of the multidimensional aspects of education. And if damages are calculated on the basis of GDP, no significant evidence will surface of the impact brought about by the closure of educational institutions. That is because other than a handful of kindergartens, the tuition fees and other transaction of most educational institutions are carrying on as in pre-coronavirus times. Some may say that the year-long closure of educational institutions has not caused that much damage, so what harm if these remain closed a little longer?
In actuality, the harm brought about by this closure of educational institutions is slow, but far reaching. We may not feel the impact of this year-long closure at present, but that does not mean that no harm is being done. Just think of how a schoolchild has spent these 12 long months? In the cities at least the students remained in contact with their schools online, but have we thought of the thousands of students in the rural areas? Many students of low income families may never go to school again. Many have become addicted to smartphones and drugs. Just take time to think of the social damages that have been done. Even if they return to school, the standard of their education can easily be guessed.
Many people say that if the students just put a bit of extra effort into their studies, they can make up the losses. In other words, our education system is restricted to teaching, studying and tests. Perhaps that is why we lose sight of the multifaceted positive aspects of education. We are happy if our children get high GPA scores, but are not bothered about whether they are developing as wholesome human beings. After all, this can’t be measured like GPA scores. And that is why there is no competition to be a good human being. The education system merely based on GPA scores has blinded us.
One of the many positive aspects of education is the social development of a child. If that is not done properly, no matter how brilliant a student may be academically, he or she will remain steeped in narrow thinking and values. There are ample examples of this in society. Even if a child does not have a good education, if their social rearing is strong, they will not be a detriment to the society.
In consideration of the social and mental harm being done to the students by the year-long closure, the decision to reopen educational institutions is justified. As the teachers have been brought under Covid vaccination coverage and most of them have been vaccinated, one of the major obstacles to reopening schools and colleges has been removed. Registration has begun for the vaccination of university students. Hopefully they too will be covered by the vaccines within the next month. That will eliminate all obstacles to reopening the educational institutions. So whether coronavirus infection rate increases or decreases, our ardent appeal is to adhere to the decision to reopen educational institutions in May. And the people must support the government in remaining steadfast in this decision. It is no longer acceptable at all to keep educational institutions shut in order to keep coronavirus in control.
* Syed Abdul Hamid is a professor at Dhaka University’s Institute of Health Economics.
* This column appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir