Every sector will reopen on Wednesday (11 August), except for the educational institutions.
These sectors remained open fully or partially during lockdowns, but educational institutions have not opened even for a single day since 18 March last year.
As a result, a good number of students are out of study. Many of them have even dropped out as they are either involved in child labour or have been subjected to early marriage due to hardships in their families.
Apart from the colossal damage to learning for roughly 4.5 crore pupils from pre-primary to post-graduate, classroom closure means loss of business of education stationeries and services.
For the past 17 months of closure of schools, colleges and universities, sales of paper and paper products, stationery, bakery and ice cream fell drastically. Services like school transportations, photocopy and food shops, groceries and vendors are having bad days.
The government has relaxed lockdowns to save the economy, but many businesses will continue to suffer as schools are not reopening soon.
Bangladesh is among the few countries that have chosen to keep schools shut for a long time since the outbreak of Covid-19. Schools are open in about 175 countries including many states in the USA and those in Europe – these countries are still battling the latest wave. Even India, which still records around 450 deaths and 36,000 new cases every day, reopened schools in most of its states except West Bengal.
In an editorial piece in Bloomberg News, its founder Michael R Bloomberg writes: Opening Schools Should Be Priority No 1 as he refers to schoolteachers' union's opposition to vaccine mandate that slowed down school reopening. "The time for excuses is over. The pandemic has done immense harm to students. Getting kids back to class should top everyone's agenda," he adds.
It is now more than 500 days since Bangladesh's students are away from classrooms, which are scheduled to stay shut till 31 August. There is no indication to open those for students any time soon as the Cabinet Secretary Khandaker Anwarul Islam on Monday said even if the current restrictions are relaxed, educational institutions would not be opened. He did not give any indication when schools might open.
Education experts fear a high dropout rate as neither the education ministry nor the primary and mass education ministry is yet to devise a fruitful plan to check dropouts and reopen educational institutions.
Rasheda K Chowdhury, executive director of Campaign for Popular Education (Campe), said the primary and mass education ministry had planned to recover learning losses last year, but there had been no progress in this regard.
"A large number of students are out of study, although the government says 93% of secondary students still are not. It is not an authentic statistic," she said, stressing that the education ministry should prepare a reopening plan and prioritise vaccination of teachers to step forward.
In absence of long-term planning, the education ministry extended the closure of educational institutions, from pre-primary to higher education, 22 times in 17 months since March last year.
According to experts, primary and secondary education are the foundation of students. In the future, the nation will have to face the negative impacts caused by the negligence or delay in reopening primary and secondary institutions.
The ministries are waiting for the coronavirus infection rate to come down below 5% or vaccination of all students. But the infection rate is unpredictable, and vaccination for the students is highly uncertain.
Professor Syed Golam Faruk, director general of the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education, told The Business Standard they are prepared to reopen educational institutions any time.
"We have two options. One is that the infection rate must be below 5%. Second, all students and teachers must get vaccines. We will not reopen educational institutions if any of the two conditions is not fulfilled," he said.
But the global practice is that vaccination of children is not a prerequisite for opening schools. None of the countries where schools are open vaccinated children under 12 years. Studies in the US and the UK suggest the risk of children getting infected at school and bringing infection back to home is very low.
Sweden kept schools open even at the peak of the pandemic, but did not report even a single child death from Covid-19.
Two UN bodies – Unesco and Unicef – last month said schools should be the last to close and first to reopen in any sort of restriction related to the pandemic.
Md Jakir Hossain, state minister for primary and mass education, said they want to reopen primary schools, and in-person classes are important for students.
But everything depends on the pandemic situation, he added.
While countries have given priority to primary and secondary levels in reopening, the education ministry in Bangladesh is planning to reopen public and private universities in September. But most of the students are yet to register for vaccines, and only half of the students who registered have been jabbed.
Losses caused by school closure
It is not only about the fear of an increase in the dropout rate, learning losses, and learning poverty. The closure of educational institutions directly leads to huge financial losses.
Private universities and schools, including kindergartens, restaurants, paper and publication industries, transport, coaching, ice cream, and other beverage and frozen food sectors have lost about Tk60,000 crore since March last year.
According to the Bangladesh Kindergarten School and College Oikya Parishad, the continuous extension of school closure in the wake of the raging pandemic has forced at least 70% of private teachers across the country to change professions in order to survive after going without pay month after month.
It said 50% of kindergartens have already been closed due to financial hardships during the pandemic.
Education ministry sources said 2.78 lakh non-monthly pay order (MPO) teachers and employees out of 3.63 lakh received vaccines. The rest are on the waiting list.
There are more than 35,000 teachers at public and private universities, and 30,000 have already received vaccines.
More than 50% of private school teachers have also received vaccines in the meantime, Iqbal Bahar Chowdhury, president of the Bangladesh Kindergarten School and College Oikya Parishad, said.
A total of 1.79 lakh university students have registered for vaccines and 80,000 of them got the first dose.
There are 4.5 crore students from pre-primary to higher education and two lakh educational institutions in the country. Of them, 45 lakh are higher education students.
What experts say
Rasheda said the government must form a special fund to facilitate students' return to school.
Not school feeding but school meals must be introduced in each upazila while low-cost and high-speed internet facilities should be increased, she said.
"If the ministries fail to implement these, the education sector may face a massive disaster after educational institutions are reopened," she added.
Dr Manzoor Ahmed, professor emeritus at Brac University, said he had placed many proposals to the government for reopening educational institutions, but they had paid no heed.
It was possible to continue academic activities in rural areas when they were not struck by the virus yet, he said.
"We told the ministries to form upazila-based committees to find students who are really needy. It will be tough for these students to come back to school if the government does not help them financially," he added.
Professor Dr Nazrul Islam, a renowned virologist and former vice-chancellor of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, said academic activities should not be allowed if the infection rate is not below 5%.
"The education ministry is not capable of implementing health guidelines properly in schools. We fear a high infection rate in schools if the situation is like that," he added.
Brac Vice-Chairperson Dr Ahmed Mushtaque Raza Chowdhury, a public health expert, said the authorities concerned should collect local-level data before reopening educational institutions.
But schools must strictly follow health guidelines issued by the health ministry and the World Health Organisation, he added.