After a long pause, the educational activities of schools and colleges are going to resume from September 12. Many felt that these institutions should have been opened much before as everything else operated almost normally along with the threats of COVID-19 pandemic. But it was about the safety of the next generation of the country and the government did not want to take the risk especially due to no vaccine facility for the minors.
Now, as the schools and colleges are going to be opened soon, new concerns are coming to the scene. It is truly about our preparedness to rush to the educational institutes despite the decline in the COVID-19 infection rate. Hence, the government and the educational institutes must address these issues before sending the students to their schools, colleges or universities.
Over 40 million students, including 17.34 million students at primary schools, were affected by school closures globally. This pandemic has somehow impacted the life and education of all 35 million students of Bangladesh also. Bangladesh is the only country in South Asia and one of only 14 globally that have kept schools fully closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a UN report issued in August.
During a meeting on Thursday, the National Technical Advisory Committee on Covid-19 also recommended reopening schools in phases and despite the reduction in Covid-19 infection rates, it stressed on the importance of mandatory mask-wearing, socially distanced seating in classrooms and clean washrooms with arrangements for washing hands with soap. Several education ministry officials said they would be able to prepare a final guideline on reopening schools by this week. However, that leaves schools with less than a week at hand to make arrangements to follow this final guideline properly.
To keep the students, especially children, safe from future COVID-19 infection, vaccination was the greatest measure. Though the government has initiated vaccination for anyone over 18 years of age, that does not cover even 30 percent of our students even if fully vaccinated. Moreover, only the vaccines of Moderna and Pfizer can be used for over 12-years age group, we could not have arranged those vaccines in high numbers to initiate vaccination for people with 12 to 18 years. Moreover, we could not vaccinate most of the students, who are 18 years and over, yet. Hence, the vaccination drive till now is not at all adequate enough to ensure safety of the students.
Another critical factor in opening up the educational institutes is the vaccination of the teachers, guardians, staffs of the educational institutes and personal drivers or maids of the students and teachers. In USA, a teacher at a primary school, who was not vaccinated, opened his mask in the classroom and from him over 50 students of that class, students from other classes, school staffs, the housemates of those students and school staffs got COVID-19 infected. It was a ferocious example of community transmission of COVID-19. Hence, it is very important that, people surrounding the students get vaccinated. But unfortunately, we can assume that, there is not a single school in Bangladesh which has cent per cent vaccinated teachers and staffs, let alone guardians and other related persons.
Moreover, these schools and colleges were closed for several months and opening those up within few days is not an easy task. It requires heavy maintenance work to prepare these institutes. If these are not properly cleaned, dengue can also spread from these institutions. Additionally, the government has instructed to arrange sanitizers and temperature checking facilities at the schools and colleges, which will require some time and personnel even for schools and colleges which are financially strong. Hence, opening up these institutions with only 10 days’ notice seems to be a hasty decision.
After a long time, the lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic was fully lifted up. The students are going through different exams over online platform still now and the ongoing exams are going to end in a few days. They are locked inside home for quite a while and need some refreshment. Immediately after the exam, if the schools and colleges open, they may be more distressed. Moreover, a clumsy and ill-managed school or college arena and disorganized class and exam schedule will add more mental burden on them without a doubt, which is very much visible from the statements of the guardians or students over different social media.
We fully agree that schools, colleges and universities should be opened as we need to cover the learning losses of our students. But that requires adequate planning. If we cannot ensure safety of our students, then keeping those institutions closed for months in the first place was completely useless.
The COVID-19 and dengue infection are mostly concentrated in the large cities like Dhaka. Fortunately, these cities also have adequate internet connectivity. The rural area students with low connectivity are mostly harmed during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. So, the schools and colleges at the rural areas should be opened first. Those students should receive teachings and attend exams directly from their respective institutions without further delay. Wearing masks, using and sanitizers and keeping social distance must be maintained at those rural area institutions too. The government need to address the issue of huge dropout in those rural areas during this long break too.
Meanwhile, within 30 to 45 days, the students over 12 years, the teachers, the staffs of educational institutions, guardians, personal drivers and maids should be vaccinated in the city areas as priority before sending those students to schools. Till then, these city area students will keep learning over online platforms. Moreover, the schools, colleges, universities should install all facilities to fight the threats of COVID-19 within this time. Until and unless all the relevant people are vaccinated, physical education should be prohibited at the city areas.
Only the government circular to reopen the schools and colleges is not going to work in avoiding future mess. The education officers and inspectors must visit every educational institution 2-3 days before opening. They must ensure that the institutions have taken all anti-COVID-19 measures and cleaned the whole premise to avoid menaces like dengue. They need to ensure that not only the classrooms but also canteen and other common areas are adequately prepared to use maintaining hygiene and social distancing. This must be done at all levels – city, district, upazila, union and even villages.
Additionally, the first day of the school should be for all guardians only. The school administration will conduct classes for the guardians on COVID-19 protocol. Then, during the next two days, all the students will attend similar awareness classes only as they were inside their home for a long time. No study related classes will be on those days. This will prepare the students as well as their guardian in fighting COVID-19 and will also portray the seriousness of the issue.
The government and the authorities of the educational institutions must realize that, opening up the schools, colleges and universities this time is not the same like opening those up after a normal vacation. We must ensure that this reopening is not done in a chaotic manner. The ministries of education have had more than a year to plan for this though it does not seem like they have thought enough. The return to education must be part of a well sorted strategy.
We hope our hurried decisions do not destroy the next generation of our country. Many countries, even the developed ones, reopened the schools on multiple occasions and had to close again even within 15 days. We do not need that to happen in Bangladesh. We have waited for 18 months and can wait for another month. We believe, with proper intent and strategy, our government and relevant authorities will ensure safety at all educational institutions.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla
and Chief Patron, Bangabandhu
Shishu Kishore Mela