On 12 September, the first day of the reopening of the educational institutions after nearly one and half years of Covid-induced closure, overall classroom attendance from the primary to the higher secondary level across the country was 67%.
It was expected that the attendance rate would increase gradually. But statistics on the first three weeks of the resumption of in-person classes reveal a rather sorry picture as attendance has continued to fall almost every day and stood at 55% on 28 September.
The increasing absenteeism from classes following the reopening of schools and colleges across the country amid the pandemic warrants immediate counteractive measures from the authorities, educationists say.
However, the government has adopted a "wait-and-watch" policy in this regard.
"We are not forcing any students to take part in classes if they or any member of their family are ill. I think the attendance rate will increase in the coming days," said Professor Syed Golam Faruk, director general of the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education.
Asked whether the authorities are considering any initiative to increase school attendance, he told The Business Standard the education ministry is observing the situation now.
Mentioning that there might be many causes behind the increasing absenteeism from school, he, however, said the ministry is yet to conduct any research to identify the actual reasons.
On the other hand, Professor Siddiqur Rahman, former director of the Institute of Education and Research at Dhaka University, stressed immediate remedial measures about the situation.
He told TBS that there was no option but to take down-to-earth measures to bring back the lost students to schools. Otherwise, the education sector might face a catastrophic consequence as dropout rates will go out of control and learning losses will increase, he warned.
"Educational institutions have reopened after a long time. Many students have shifted to new places, some have got involved in jobs, while many girl students have been forced into child marriage. The education ministry must make all-out efforts to recover the losses," he said.
Meanwhile, health experts said the education ministry should take steps to start full-scale classes in line with health guidelines as the daily Covid-19 infection rate in the country has already declined below 3%.
Classes are currently being conducted following curtailed routines as the government decided to resume regular routines once the pandemic comes under control.
"We had suggested that the government resume classes once the infection rate comes down below 5%. Now that the infection rate has declined, the ministry can continue in-person classes by maintaining health guidelines," Professor Dr Nazrul Islam, a noted virologist and member of the National Technical Advisory Committee on Covid-19, told TBS.
"Students are already suffering from learning losses and many of them might have dropped out already. So the government should not have any more delay in taking proper decisions," he added.
Data provided by the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education show HSC examinees being at the top of the list of absentees.
The absence rate is also disappointing among this year's SSC examinees.
25 lakh students out of touch!
About 15,000 private educational institutions have closed permanently amid the pandemic, casting a cloud of uncertainty on the fate of about 25 lakh students.
Speaking to some school teachers, TBS came to know that school authorities were trying to bring all their students back to schools but that many students had already got engaged in jobs to earn daily bread for their families and were reluctant to continue with their studies. On the other hand, many students had shifted elsewhere, they added.
Iqbal Bahar Chowdhury, president of the Bangladesh Kindergarten School and College Oikya Parishad, told TBS that there were 60,000 kindergartens with around 1 crore students and 10 lakh teachers and staffers before the pandemic.
"Only 45,000 kindergartens that have managed to reopen are now experiencing as low as 60% student turnout. This is in contrast with the regular attendance rate in pre-pandemic times, which was 90-95% on average.
Ministry working to assess learning losses
The Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education has formed a committee to assess learning losses during the pandemic period, officials said, adding the ministry will make syllabuses for students after gauging the extent of such losses.
Professor Syed Golam Faruk of the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education told TBS that the committee would submit the report in 2 weeks. "We could make a decision about learning losses after getting the report," he said.
Professor Narayan Chandra Saha, chairman of the National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB), said the board prepared a remedial package to minimise students' learning losses earlier, but now it has to make another package as the reopening of schools has been a late happening.
"We will be able to provide the remedial packages within a short time as we have done many things in this regard," he added.
Manzoor Ahmed, professor emeritus at Brac University, told TBS, "I made a proposal last May, suggesting forming district- and upazila-wise committees comprising representatives of all communities to check school dropouts and estimate learning losses.
"This year a lot of students have got promoted to new classes automatically with inadequate knowledge, but the authorities lack adequate data to address all these issues."