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The secondary and higher education directorate also drew up guidelines for the reopening of their educational institutions in keeping with public health and health regulations. Schools and colleges were supposed to reopen from March this year in keeping with those guidelines. However, with the outbreak of the delta variant of coronavirus, the government pushed back the date for the institutions to reopen.

Government sources say that there are no plans to reopen the educational institutions until the coronavirus transmission rate falls below 5 per cent.

Prothom Alo spoke to certain scientists, physicians and public health experts about reopening of educational institutions. There were differences among the experts over whether primary school, secondary school or university classrooms should open up first, whether masks should be worn in classrooms and so on. But they were all in consensus about one thing -- coronavirus would not be going away completely over the next couple years and so, despite the virus, normal life must be resumed in keeping with health guidelines.

The government is working on preparations for the reopening of all educational institutions in the country. However, schools and colleges will not be reopened until the coronavirus situation improves
Dipu Moni, education minister

Epidemiologist and adviser of the Institute for Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), Mushtuq Husain, told Prothom Alo, "Educational institutions cannot be kept closed for so long. There is no possibility of coronavirus being eradicated so easily. At least a trial of reopening educational institutions should be carried out now."

Educational institutions have been closed for 17 months in the country. Bangladesh is among the 14 countries in the world where educational institutions have been closed for the most extended period. Educational institutions have recently reopened in a few states of India. Others are preparing to open up in the shortest possible time.

The actual state of coronavirus

Education minister Dipu Moni told newsmen, "The government is working on preparations for the reopening of all educational institutions in the country. However, schools and colleges will not be reopened until the coronavirus situation improves."

The guidelines finalised by the secondary and higher education directorate state that the Covid-19 situation must be examined before reopening educational institutions. It can be said that the rate of coronavirus at a union/ward level is low when the rate of coronavirus patients in RT-PCR tests is 3 to 5 per cent for 14 days in areas around the educational institutions.

In the last 24 hours (Sunday 8:00am to Monday 8:00am), there were another 174 corona deaths in the country, with 6,959 new cases detected. The Directorate General Health Services (DGHS) said that 33,015 samples were tested in that time, with the rate of detection being 21.8 per cent.

Scientists, public health experts and physicians feel that these figures do not accurately reflect the actual state of coronavirus in the country. A University of Sheffield researcher, involved in the manufacture of coronavirus vaccine in Bangladesh, told Prothom Alo on condition of anonymity that if the actual rate of infections is to be measured, then teachers, readymade garment factory workers, homemakers, rickshaw-pullers and people of all professions and walks of life, must undergo sample testing. Only people with symptoms are being tested now. But if the actual situation is to be understood, then people in villages, cities and townships must be brought under the testing coverage. No comments can be made on the rate of coronavirus transmissions based on a faulty system.

How prepared?

A decision had been made to reopen primary, secondary and higher education level educational institutions from 30 March this year. It was said that all classes would not run every day. At first Class 12 of the higher secondary level, Class 10 of the secondary level and Class 5 of the primary level would have classes every day (six days a week). And classes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8 would have classes once a week. Classes 9 and 11 would have classes twice a week. And pre-primary would remain closed. Universities were to reopen on 24 May. But with the spike in coronavirus transmissions, this did not happen.

At the time, the secondary and higher education directorate had drawn up instructions on how the educational institutions would be opened safely, how the curriculum would be run, what steps would be taken for relatively deprived students and the students at risk, what would be done for the physical and mental health of the students and so on. There were plans to publicise all this widely before the institutions were reopened. The plans included discussions with the parents and local people too.

These plans for extensive publicity have not been implemented because the government has not taken any decision as yet as to when the schools and colleges will be opened.

Principal of Dhaka's Government Laboratory High School, Md Abu Sayeed Bhuiyan, speaking to Prothom Alo, said that they would reopen the moment the government gave the order. They were fully prepared. They had set up hand washing facilities at the main gate of the school. A teacher would enter the classroom just before the previous teacher exits so that the students would follow the health rules.

The school has 1500 to 1600 students in one shift. Principal Abu Sayeed Bhuiyan said they would plan how to hold classes once they received directives from the ministry. The health ministry may also provide directives. Then they would decide how many classes would be taken a week and how many students there would be per shift. The matter hadn't been decided upon as yet.

Director of the primary school directorate Alamgir Muhammad Mansurul Alam, told Prothom Alo that they have been prepared for quite a few months to reopen the schools. They are doing all required to ensure the cleanliness of the schools.

When asked if the schools were inspected regularly, he said they kept in touch and were in contact with all schools through WhatsApp.

The principal of a government school in Kishoreganj, however, told Prothom Alo that a few months ago the directorate had asked them for plans about restarting school. They sent the plans accordingly. Hand washing facilities had been installed at the school. Masks were kept in stock. The school had a large number of students but they had not received any directives as yet as to how to bring them all back to school. They had not been instructed as to whether the students would come to school every day or once or twice as well, how many shifts would be held and so on.

The drive to vaccinate teachers was going on in full swing. Primary, secondary and higher secondary school teachers said that if anyone among them hadn't been vaccinated, they were questioned about this. They felt that this indicated schools might reopen soon.

Attempts were made to contact the director general of the secondary and higher education directorate Syed Md Golam Faruk about whether there would schools be reopened on a trial basis, but he did not respond to the phone calls.

What preparations?

In neighbouring India, the education ministry has given the state governments the responsibility regarding reopening of schools. Uttar Pradesh has given the districts responsibility to take the required measures. According to Hindustan Times, Delhi and Punjab schools have taken initiative to step up communication between teachers and parents as part of preparation to reopen. In Himachal Pradesh, the teachers are going to the students' homes to motivate them to return to school.

In China's Wuhan province, school, colleges and universities opened up September last year. A New York Times report said that in China, before the students went back to school, an account of their travel history was collected. From the day after school opened, their temperatures were measured thrice along with other initiatives. Local government officials and Communist Party workers were given the task of checking whether the health guidelines were being followed.

We are not recommending the reopening of educational institutions when the rate of transmissions is above 20 per cent. The lockdown has been lifted. Perhaps a decision can be taken in a week or two after observing the results of the lockdown being lifted.
Mohammad Shahidullah, Convener, National Technical Advisory Committee on Covid-19

There is no such thing happening in Bangladesh. Bangladesh's public health experts feel that a blanket directive will not be effective for all school and colleges. The decisions have to be based on the location of the school, the structure, the number of students and the age group. Some schools have windows which can't be opened. Then arrangements must be made so these can be opened. Arrangements must be made so rain can't enter the classrooms. Many schools have an inadequate number of washrooms. It is vital to have an adequate number of washrooms. There must be a stock of masks, soap and thermometers. Extensive campaigns on health rules must be carried out.

Chairperson of the pharmacology department of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, Sayedur Rahman Khasru, told Prothom Alo that first of all proper ventilation in the classrooms must be ensured. The institutions with air conditioners are at higher risk. There are still less coronavirus cases among children. They can be sent to school. It must be compulsory to wear cotton masks in the educational institutions, to have hand washing facilities and clean washrooms. Once this is ensured, then the other tasks can be carried out.

However, IEDCR adviser Mushtuq Husain, feels that university classes should resume first. This can begin with Rajshahi University or Jahangirnagar University. He recommends that the universities have separate isolation centres for students, that the university medical centres are improved and the ambulances are functional.

Children are at lesser risk of infection and so why should universities be opened first? In reply, Mushtuq Husain said that most of the university students are going out and about as it is. Many of them have been vaccinated. Even if they contract Covid, the risks are lower.

Most parents in favour of reopening

According to the Education Watch 2020-21 survey report of the Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE), most students, teachers, parents and education officers are in favour of schools reopening. And 75 per cent of the students want to return to classes soon. Also, 76 per cent of the parents and 73 per cent of the district education officers are in favour of schools reopening.

Convener of Shikkha O Shishu Rakkha Andolan, Rakhal Raha, told Prothom Alo, the government hasn't given education the importance it has attached to other sectors. Even countries where the coronavirus situation had been extremely bad, have opened up the educational institutions, closing them when the situation demands. At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, there was no sign of the virus in the mofussils (small towns) and rural areas, but schools were closed down there too.

Convener of the National Technical Advisory Committee on Covid-19, Mohammad Shahidullah, said, "We are not recommending the reopening of educational institutions when the rate of transmissions is above 20 per cent. The lockdown has been lifted. Perhaps a decision can be taken in a week or two after observing the results of the lockdown being lifted."

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