The empty seats in our classrooms
After 543 days of school closure, one of the most protracted education gaps in the world that was caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the children of Bangladesh finally returned to their classrooms on September 12. Once classes resumed, the media was awash with heartwarming photos and videos of students coming together, chatting excitedly as they walked into their classrooms, and being welcomed back to school by their teachers.
Throughout the pandemic, education experts have not only stressed on the catastrophic learning losses that would result from prolonged school closure, but on the adverse impacts on the mental health of isolated students as well. The joyous reactions of the returnees were testament to the fact that their concerns were not overstated.
As we welcome the younger generation back to the physical learning environment, it is clear that simply returning to school is not enough; the students need all the support they can get to recover from learning losses—especially those who were not able to access online education due to the digital divide.
However, there is another matter of great concern that is starting to become apparent: the empty seats in the classrooms.
This week, The Daily Star published the story of Nargis Nahar, from Kurigram Sadar upazila, who graduated from Class 8 of Sardob High School in 2020 with eight other female classmates. When she returned to school last week, she realised she was the only one there—all the other girls had become victims of child marriage and had dropped out. According to the head teacher of her school, one sixth grader, two seventh graders, four eighth graders and three 10th graders had also been married off during the pandemic. Out of 63 previously enrolled female students, only 15 girls returned to school when it reopened.
This state of affairs has been seen in many schools across the country. On September 7, Prothom Alo released a shocking report of 50 different cases of child marriage—students from the same school—in Alipur union in Satkhira, all of which took place during the Covid shutdown. A study conducted by Brac estimates that child marriage may have increased by 13 percent during the pandemic—the highest in 25 years.
However, it is not only girls who are at risk. In December last year, The Daily Star ran a photo story of nine-year-old Nayeem, who was selling cigarettes and betel leaves during school closure to support his family (his mother had lost her job as a domestic help). The picture of the round-faced, smiling boy, hard at work on the streets when he should be in school, garnered attention; Nayeem received support from a social organisation and returned to school. But have other children—who have been forced to take up jobs during the shutdown, especially after the pandemic pushed their families further into poverty—had similar luck? In Nargis' school in Kurigram, out of the 162 enrolled male students, only 50 boys have returned.
The fact that fewer students are returning to school is corroborated by government data: according to a Prothom Alo report on September 19, the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education (DSHE) has been collecting daily data on student attendance, which was, at the time, around 60 percent. While it is still early days and attendance may increase, there is no denying that child marriage and child labour have gone up during the pandemic, and this could easily translate into an increased rate of school dropout in the country if concerted efforts are not made immediately. This trend has been observed all over the world, from Brazil and the US to India and South Africa, with girls being affected the worst. According to Unicef, in South and West Asia, 2.8 million women and girls may not be able to return to education after the pandemic—from pre-primary to tertiary levels.
At present, it is difficult to estimate to what extent the dropout rate might increase. In 2019, the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (Banbeis) reported that the dropout rate of boys at the secondary level had already increased to 36 percent, the highest since 2011, and the dropout rate of girls continued to be persistently higher—it was 40.19 percent at the time. A report by Save the Children from July 2020 warned that Bangladesh was among 28 countries that faced moderate to high risks of school dropout, especially for female students. Their concerns were echoed by the government: in June last year, the Directorate of Primary Education (DPE) finalised its stakeholder engagement plan on the Covid-19 situation, where it warned of a pandemic-induced rise in dropout rates, which would most likely be linked to increased incidences of early marriage, adolescent fertility, and child labour—especially among children from disadvantaged families. At the time, the DPE proposed strengthening monitoring mechanisms, as well as re-enrolment campaigns involving participatory community actions and awareness programmes, to bring children back to school.
Are these plans still on track? How quickly will they be implemented? According to The Daily Star, the education authorities have developed a Covid-19 Response and Recovery Plan with an estimated budget of Tk 768 crore. Details have been given in a yet-to-be released position paper, jointly prepared by the Economic Relations Division and Brac, on how a bulk of these recovery funds will be concentrated on arranging facilities at schools to follow health protocols, and on developing remote learning.
However, around 11 percent of the funds will be directed towards student assessment and teachers' training. This is crucial for preventing dropouts, since research suggests that one of the biggest predictors of school dropouts is falling behind in studies, especially from low-quality schools. But dropouts can be prevented only if these assessments are followed up by remedial education to help the students who have fallen behind.
The position paper, which was obtained by The Daily Star, also recommended the introduction of two to three years' back-to-school campaigns with a focus on dropout-prone areas, but the initial report on the paper does not clarify how much resources will be committed to prevent school dropouts specifically. Targeted and specific incentives for going back to school, like stipends or school feeding, have been recommended as a strategy as well.
A January 2021 research paper from the Asian Development Bank confirms that stipends have a positive impact on reducing dropouts— "a conservative estimate shows that the development benefits of the [female secondary] stipend programme outweigh its cost by more than 200 percent"—and the Tk 19,280 crore government project proposal (announced in August last year) to provide daily school meals for all of the 1.41 crore government primary school students by 2023 is likely to have an important effect on reducing dropouts as well.
Of course, the question of the day is, when will these plans actually translate into action? And in the time that it takes for this to happen, how many students will be lost to child marriage and child labour? The lag between proposing and implementing government projects has become so notorious that even the country's premier has publicly criticised the delays, urging speedy implementation.
Certain things, for example, could easily be done right now, such as the collection of gender segregated data to track the changes in school enrolment. Although the DSHE has been attempting to do so via a Google Doc link on their website, this is hardly likely to reach the rural and marginalised areas, where we most urgently need this data from. Instead, it would be more practical to partner with NGOs and local leaders, who can also conduct visits to families with school dropouts and motivate them to send their children back to school.
There is no denying the fact that education recovery in Bangladesh will be a long and difficult journey, and the focus will be on ensuring that students are safe in their classrooms and able to recover from learning losses. But we cannot leave behind the students who have not made it back to their classrooms yet—and perhaps never will, if we delay in reaching out to them. In this case, such a delay will not only be a waste of time and potential; it can be the anvil that comes crashing down on the dreams of many Bangladeshi children.
Shuprova Tasneem is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @shuprovatasneem