The date of February 22, 2022, should be remembered as a watershed moment in our COVID recovery efforts. Whether or not everyone was able to return to their educational institutes right away, this date will go down in Bangladesh's COVID recovery history.
The school and other educational institutions closure has been the worst long-term damage that the pandemic has left behind. Millions of kindergarten students began their education in a previously unimaginable format: Zoom. One of my female MBA students had to walk 3 kilometers with her grandmother, including crossing a canal by boat, to find a place with a strong network connection so she could listen to lectures without interruption, and after her evening MBA sessions at 9:00 p.m., she even returns home terrified of missing the final boat leaving at 9:30 p.m. The objective of this paper is not to explore the impact of school and other institution closures for the next two years because the whole picture will most likely emerge in a few years. Every institution at every level will have to find its own way to navigate through this process and the journey is not going to same. But there are certain elements that are cross-cutting and we need to talk about those.
The whole reopening should start by admitting the fact that teachers, students, and their families are anxious, tired, and disproportionately affected by the pandemic. There is hope and effort to get the education system to pre-pandemic "normal" among many, but the teachers and students who are getting ready to go back agree that the pre-pandemic "normal" was not optimal. It was simply the status quo, the default, that students and faculty were living with. What faculty and students hope for is that their academic institutions, families, and governments support them as they seek to carry forward what they learned and experienced during the pandemic. And the biggest expectation from the government is that it allows the institutions to charter their own way to the new "normal" without too much interference while maintaining a certain standard.
There are four elements that we definitely would like to carry forward from our learning from the pandemic time. Regardless of how a course was delivered — online, in-person, or in a hybrid fashion — but various teaching and learning innovations during the pandemic were hard to ignore. Whether it was the ability to invite other experts to their courses for virtual appearances as lecturers or discussions with students or new ways of ensuring higher class participation, the innovations in teaching and learning should be carried forward. We fervently hope that the institutions and governments do not lose sight of the trust and compassion that was extended to them during the pandemic. There were exemplary efforts made by various institutions as well as by the government at times to address the many gaps that students of varied socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds face, including inequitable access to technology as well as inequities in having their basic needs met.
As the academic institutions resume, we as educators need to listen to students' concerns and, express understanding and empathy even if their emotions are extreme at times. Educators need to be open and honest and acknowledge the uncertainties facing all of us. One thing that the pandemic has definitely taught many of us is that we need to understand and relate to our own vulnerabilities first to understand and empathize with vulnerabilities faced by others. No amount of planning will prevent sudden happenings along the way. Therefore, encouraging tolerance of fear and anxiety will be essential. Institutions that have not been able to enough preparation for reopening should consider a gradual re-entry of the students and keep the families informed about the plan.
"Management by mystery" is the last thing as anxiety thrives in uncertainty and frequent, transparent, and coordinated communication at this stage with students and their families is crucial. Educators also need to be more open, directive, and creative in appreciating the positive and courageous behaviors of students. And most importantly educators need to model good coping behaviors for students. How educators handle their fears, stress, and acts throughout the day will impact how students assess their own situations.
Students also need to realize that as the institutions reopen, every school, college, or university will look a little different. Decisions will often be made at the national level and academic institutions will have to adjust to those decisions irrespective of their own context.
Focusing in a physical classroom might be difficult at the initial stage but the students need to be patient with themselves and relearn how to concentrate in a physical classroom. The stress of an ongoing crisis manifests differently for everybody but the students need to understand that they are not alone and this is the time to speak up and seek help.
For students, getting back into a routine including needed breaks will be crucial to cope with the transition. Routine gives us the power of predictability and simple steps like fixing the sleep cycle and controlling the screen time might make all the difference in the end. For students coming back to Dhaka or returning to a different city for their higher education, this transition will be physically and emotionally daunting. And a great way to cope with this would be to stay connected with friends and families either by phone or virtually. They must find that person or friend that gives them strength and proactively reach out to them for support.
Though the ideas offered above might appear very generic it is up to us as a society to be purposeful in designing an education system that accommodates different needs and enables broader access to resources and programs. We should not be heading back to normal. The only way we could make up for this loss is by hoping and working for a better education system- better than the one dominated by COVID-19, and the status quo that existed prior.
Asif U Ahmed is an assistant professor and director of MBA Programme at ULAB. He is also an acting director at EMK Center.