Health

2022 renewed hopes of bridging the learning gap for a generation. But omicron casts a new shadow

But as the year winds down, the emergence of a highly-infectious new variant of COVID-19, omicron has once again raised the possibility of another nationwide shutdown of schools and colleges.

Experts hailed the reopening of schools as the biggest positive for Bangladesh in 2022. Yet, the unprecedented amount of time that students spent away from schools has brought about incalculable losses to the education sector.

However, the bigger challenge lies in making up for the damage wrought by the pandemic on the prospects of future generations.

Students share never ending stories of their homebound lives at Viqarunnisa Noon School and College in Dhaka on Sunday, Sept 12, 2022 on return to in-person classes after the long coronavirus shutdown. Photo: Kazi Salahuddin Razu

Students share never ending stories of their homebound lives at Viqarunnisa Noon School and College in Dhaka on Sunday, Sept 12, 2022 on return to in-person classes after the long coronavirus shutdown. Photo: Kazi Salahuddin Razu

This generation of students risks losing $17 trillion in lifetime earnings in present value, or about 14 percent of today’s global GDP, as a result of COVID-19 pandemic-related school closures, a report published by the World Bank, UNESCO, and UNICEF found.

Schoolchildren around the world have lost an estimated 1.8 trillion hours of in-person learning since the onset of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, according to a UNICEF report published in September.

Even before a plan to recuperate the losses could be put in motion, omicron has added fresh worries as its rapid spread is forcing countries worldwide to once again resort to stringent restrictions.

Education Minister Dipu Moni has already said that schools and colleges will be shut down again if the variant runs rampant.

Bangladesh suspended all classes and examinations a week after discovering the first COVID-19 case on Mar 8, 2020. Students had to wait 543 days for things to return to normal as classes resumed on Sept 12 this year.

Remote learning was introduced to keep things ticking but it ultimately proved futile in keeping students engaged. With the resumption of in-person classes, students were once again able to sit for exams after a long wait.

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The Secondary School Certificate and Higher Secondary Certificate exams were held on a shorter syllabus after a nine-month delay. The SSC tests began on Nov 14, marking the resumption of public tests after a year and a half.

The 2022 HSC and equivalent exams began on Dec 2 after the students were graded on their average JSC and SSC scores last year.

The pandemic-induced break in studies also raised fears of an increase in the school dropout rate, and the concerns were well-founded as the low turnout in both the SSC and HSC exams this year attests.

Officials said the attendance was lower in institutions where students from low-income families mostly go.

Academician Prof Syed Manjurul Islam says many families suffered from a financial crunch due to the pandemic. As a result, many boys and girls turned their attention to providing for their families. Some families even married girls off for financial sustainability.

“The government has to scope out these students and provide financial support to bring them back to classes.”

A professor of the Department of English at Dhaka University, Manjurul stressed the importance of investing more in the education sector.

Due to the long break in studies, the government suspended all annual, PEC and JSC exams this year.

Dipu Moni believes the impact of holding exams on a curtailed syllabus will be apparent next year. She added that students will be tested on the revised curriculum in the future as well.

University students, on the other hand, held protests in 2022 to demand the reopening of campuses and dormitories to avert session jams. The campuses began reopening on the last week of September this year, following the start of vaccination drives to inoculate students nationwide.

The university entrance exams, which also remained suspended due to COVID’s stranglehold, also began in late September. Dhaka University held admission tests in all divisional cities for the first time this year.

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Most of the universities held the entrance exams in clusters. But the top universities of the country opposed the system and the students were forced to travel to different parts of the country to attend the tests.

In September, the government put forth a fresh curriculum, instituting a range of changes, for primary and secondary levels. The plan aims to implement the changes by 2025 and is set for a trial run in 100 primary and 100 secondary schools starting in January.

The new method takes out all exams until the third grade and all public exams before the SSC. It also plans to remove the existing system of mainstream subjects splitting into science, commerce and humanities after eighth grade.

Collective evaluation before promotion into the next class will be preceded by learning assessments throughout the year.

Experts think the changes are in line with the aim of making education more effective and realistic. Yet, there are doubts about the practicality of its implications on the system.

Teachers of Udayan School in Dhaka welcome students back with flowers and chocolates amid the coronavirus pandemic on Sunday, Sept 12, 2022 after the long closure. Photo: Kazi Salahuddin Razu

Teachers of Udayan School in Dhaka welcome students back with flowers and chocolates amid the coronavirus pandemic on Sunday, Sept 12, 2022 after the long closure. Photo: Kazi Salahuddin Razu

Prof SM Hafizur Rahman of DU’s Institute of Education and Research or IER thinks implementing the new curriculum is a big challenge.

“The developed countries of the world have such curriculums. But does Bangladesh have the educational infrastructure or the teachers with the required skills and training like those countries do?

“Most of the schools in our country have 80-100 or more students in each class. Will our teachers be able to evaluate so many students correctly?”

“We need many more teachers to run classes under the new curriculum. We have to train the teachers and prepare them for classes. It should’ve been done before introducing the curriculum.”

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The government says the move aims to make education “enjoyable” by making learning experiential and interactive, departing from an overreliance on books and memorisation.

Speaking on Toufique Imrose Khalidi Live earlier this month, Dipu Moni said the trial run of the revised curriculum aims to iron out some of the underlying issues while teachers undergo training for its appropriate application.

Teachers of Udayan School in Dhaka welcome students back with flowers and chocolates amid the coronavirus pandemic on Sunday, Sept 12, 2022 after the long closure. Photo: Kazi Salahuddin Razu

Teachers of Udayan School in Dhaka welcome students back with flowers and chocolates amid the coronavirus pandemic on Sunday, Sept 12, 2022 after the long closure. Photo: Kazi Salahuddin Razu

Although the education system is up and running after a long hiatus, experts asked the authorities to pay particular attention to recovering the loss of learning suffered in the last two years.

Fahima Khatun, former director-general of the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education, believes incorporating lessons from the previous year into the new syllabus can help the students cope with their studies.

She said the coronavirus dealt a huge blow to the efforts made towards diminishing social distinction in education.

Even if online classes can minimise the damage to higher education, it would be much harder to make up for the losses secondary students sustained.

“Only one or two classes were held in primary schools this year, which is not enough to cover for the losses. To do that, lessons from previous years need to be included in the syllabus when classes start in the New Year. That was done in primary this year. This has to go all the way up to the eighth grade.”

Syeda Tahmina Akhter, a professor at Dhaka University’s Institute of Education and Research, called for more effort in bringing the students, who slipped through the cracks, back into classrooms.

“Otherwise, a large portion of the students will stay out [of studies].”

[Written in English by Syed Mahmud Onindo, edited by Turaj Ahmad]

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