Nur Mohammad, a fourth-grader in Brahmanbaria, cannot recognise Bangla alphabets. For Shahriar Islam, a fifth-grader in the capital Dhaka, it is even worse; he cannot even remember the names of his classmates.
The Covid-19 pandemic has kept kids away from classrooms for almost two long years, and also taken away what they had learned, along with their memories.
Long school closures, the longest in the world with 82 weeks since March 2020, also changed classroom behaviours, as teachers find children paying less attention to lessons, becoming restive and staying fewer hours in school, while many are preferring mobile phone games over time spent with friends.
Nishat, now a tenth-grader in a Cumilla school, has failed to catch up with her physics and chemistry classes during two years of online classes. Meanwhile, a mother in Barishal is worried about seeing her eighth-grader "tired" at school, opting for Facebook over textbooks.
Long absence from classrooms spells multiple repercussions and learning loss is one of them. Behavioural changes and depression are other fallouts. While academics call for intensive methods to overcome learning gaps, social psychologists feel the urgency for counselling to bring students' attention back to classrooms.
A scary scenario on the ground
The Business Standard correspondents visited different schools in Dhaka and from around the country, speaking to children, teachers and guardians. What they found was close to what experts and global research agencies have been warning about since school shutdowns were prolonged.
Nur Mohammad, the class-IV student at Ashuganj East Government Primary School in Brahmanbaria, squinted his eyes staring intensely at a Bangla sentence for ten to twenty seconds.
"I can't read and it is hard for me to recognise the Bangla alphabet," Nur Mohammad, who was a grade-II student when the pandemic hit Bangladesh in 2020, declared.
Nur Mohammad was one of 78 in his class who could not read or write Bangla or English properly.
The learning losses are exacerbated by attention deficiencies, which have only grown during the pandemic.
According to Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE), 27% of students are addicted to "screen-time", playing mobile games. Of them, 8.5% spend more than five-hours and 77% take up to two hours to play games.
A recent Unicef report showed that in low- and middle-income countries, learning losses had left up to 70% of 10-year-olds unable to read or understand a simple text, up from 53% pre-pandemic.
Room to Read, a non-profit organisation for improving literacy and gender equality in education in the developing world, also questioned the quality of primary education in Bangladesh.
It said that Class-I and Class-II students must read at least 60 words a minute. But 32% of students could not read a single word at that time in Bangladesh.
A recent survey conducted by the Brac Institute of Governance and Development found that as many as 7.86 million primary and secondary school students suffered learning losses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Habiba Siddique, an assistant teacher of the Ashuganj East Government Primary School, looked flustered when asked about the performance of her students.
"Actually the students could not learn at home during the Covid-19 pandemic. The students' learning environment is very poor. We have been trying to fill the gap but it is very difficult," she said.
"The students are disruptive during classes. The guardians are also not aware as they do not help their children with the school work," she added.
Other schools are facing the same problem.
Shahnaj Parvin, an assistant teacher of the Shaheed Buddhijibi Dr Amin Uddin Government Primary School in the capital's Nilkhet area, told TBS that they were at a loss for words to explain how much learning losses the students were facing. "It is due to only the Covid-19 pandemic as the students did not take lessons during closure of the school."
Rina Parvin, head mistress of the school, said they were trying to recover from the learning losses, but it is hard when there are only five teachers for 180 students.
The school is also seeing only a 61% attendance rate. At the same time, the student's maturity levels are much less than it should have been, meaning they don't even know how to interact with teachers in the classroom, Rina said.
Students, too, are facing different problems, unique to the education system.
Nishat is a tenth grade student at the Nawab Faizunnesa Government Girls' High School, the best institution in Cumilla district.
When her school closed down at the beginning of the pandemic, Nishat was in class-VIII and they had just begun going into the intricacies of physics, chemistry and higher maths.
"I attended online classes but could not understand properly. Now I am facing severe learning problems," she said.
"I cannot understand those subjects. I don't know what I'll do," she added.
Parents, too, are caught up in the worries.
"My son doesn't want to go to school. He is always using the mobile phone to play different games or use the Internet," said Tahsin Akter, a guardian.
TBS correspondents from Dhaka and five other districts also found that attendance in rural and urban areas was poor.
"I am disappointed at the present attendance rate. Most students are busy with Facebook or the Internet. They have no attention to their lessons," said a class teacher of Barishal Zilla School, seeking anonymity.
Against this backdrop, experts have urged for an urgent recovery and remedial plan. A two-year learning recovery plan must be developed and started to be implemented urgently and as an educational emergency measure, CAMPE said.
KM Enamul Hoque, deputy director of Campe, told TBS that they are conducting a survey on learning losses.
They assume that a large number of students have faced learning losses. The government must take immediate measures to recover the learning losses, otherwise, Bangladesh might face severe generational problems as students will grow up without any knowledge, he said.
Learning losses aside, students will also be facing an unprecedented mental health crisis, experts fear.
Professor Dr Mehtab Khanam, a noted psychologist, told TBS that people became poorer and lost their capital and jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It directly impacted the lives of students. As a result, many pupils are suffering from depression.
"Counselling is a must for the students. But unfortunately the country is suffering from a lack of psychiatrists and psychologists. Even new training has become uncertain due to the surge in Covid-19 infections. I don't see any hope," she said.
Finally, there are the economic impacts.
A World Bank report, published in April 2021, said the prolonged closure of schools is causing an education crisis that may cost Bangladesh and other South Asian countries over $1 trillion in lost earnings in the long run.
What experts say
Nobel laureate economist Abhijit Banerjee, also co-chair of the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel (GEEAP), which is working on recommendations for the education sector in the post-pandemic world, said it was time to shift focus from completing syllabuses to ensuring that all children are equally-equipped to learn the same lessons.
"If a Class III student with a Class I learning level is promoted to Class V, it will be impossible for them to learn the syllabus. They can't even read properly; how can you teach them history or general knowledge? If this continues, there will be no hope for the child, and they may opt to drop out," he said this while talking with the TBS recently.
Backing up Banerjee's assertions is a World Bank report from earlier last month which said 76% of children will not attain the minimum reading proficiency at the end of primary school due to school closures.
He also urged finding a way to bring all the children to the same level, saying that teachers had a crucial role to play in this regard.
"We need to think anew about how to provide learning opportunities to children," he said, stressing the need for finding each student's weakness and focusing on that.
Dr Syed Manzoorul Islam, former professor of English at Dhaka University, told TBS that the government must take a specific plan and allocate sufficient budget to recover learning losses. "I don't know why the government is unwilling to spend on education."
Dr Manzoor Ahmed, professor Emeritus of Brac University, said the government should carry out a rapid assessment in each school of student readiness for their grade level in basic skills of Bangla and maths.
A longer term view can hardly be taken unless the education system stands on its feet now and survives the present crisis, which can have a generational impact with cumulative learning deficiency for students, he said.
Although the education ministry has already developed a strategy to recover learning losses during the pandemic-induced school closures, no survey was conducted to actually gauge the extent of the losses that need to be recovered.
The National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB) has developed the strategy after the ministry asked them to come up with a system to mitigate students' learning losses, Prof Md Moshiuzzaman, member (Curriculum) and acting chairman of NCTB told The Business Standard.
According to the NCTB officials, the project would cover a range of relevant issues including cooperation and coordination, mutual trust and respect, morality and responsibility, behaviour, patriotism, tolerance, non-communal attitude, environmental consciousness, democratic attitude, self-confidence and gender consciousness, among others.
Professor Nehal Ahmed, director general of Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education, told TBS that they are conducting a survey to find out the extent of the learning losses. "We will take initiative after getting the report," he added.
There are over two lakh educational institutions with more than 4.5 crore students across the country.
More than 30% absentees
The Safe Back to School (SB2S) found that 57%-69% secondary and 65%-86% primary students have been attending schools after reopening the educational institutions in the country.
It conducted the survey from 13 November to 5 December in 2021 at 328 schools with 1,606 students from 17 districts.
It found that the students are facing learning difficulties, difficulties in understanding lessons and challenges in socialising with others.
It suggested providing special training to teachers to make the students happy and improve their mental well-being. It also suggested arranging complementary remedial classes for these students to help them recover from the learning gap.
Debasish Debu from Sylhet, Sanullah Sanu from Lakshmipur, Azizul Shonchay from Brahmanbaria, Jahir Jewel from Barishal, Khorshed Alam from Bogura and Tayebur Rahman Sohel from Cumilla also contributed to this report