Thousands of students in Bangladesh are feared to have dropped out of school due to the problems caused by Covid-19. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
Subol Sarker was a regular seventh-grade student at Dashuria High School in Bangladesh's Pabna district before Covid-19 forced the school to close indefinitely in March last year.
Ten months on, the 14-year-old Hindu boy has dropped out of the school after being completely detached from formal education. He has become a daily wage earner to support his poor family.
The school has been conducting online classes for students for months. But poor families like Subol’s, who don’t even have a television at home, could not afford a smartphone to allow him to access online education.
“I could be in eighth grade this year if I could continue studies. But I go out to work every day to earn an income to support my family. I can earn up to 400 taka (US$4.70) a day and I hand over most of my income to my mother,” Subol told UCA News.
He is the eldest of three children. His younger sister was a fifth-grade student in a local government school. She also risks being dropping out. The youngest brother is a three-year-old who is yet to enrol in a school.
“I have seen my father's suffering in running the family. Yet he sent us to schools despite difficulties. I wanted to work and help him, but he didn’t agree. Only after the school closed did he allow me to work,” he said.
Subol’s father Bashudeb Sarker is a rickshaw puller in Pubna town. He has always struggled to send his children to school. Loss of income during the pandemic worsened their financial situation.
“My son is working and helping the family now and I am happy about it. We can save some money after expenses. However, if he wants to go to school again, I will not stop him,” Bashudeb, 40, told UCA News.
He says that he wants his son to get an education and regretted that he couldn’t buy him a mobile phone as he had no money, which caused serious damage to his education and future life.
Meanwhile, Subol is not interested in going to school anymore as he lost touch with education and many of his classmates have graduated to next grade. “I want to keep working and helping my family,” he said.
Like Subol, thousands of poor children in Bangladesh have become a casualty of the Covid-19 pandemic and dropped out of school.
No access to education
In a recent report, the Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE) showed that many students failed to have any access to education during Covid-19 as they lacked facilities and devices.
The Interim Education Watch Report 2020-21, released virtually on Jan. 18, interviewed 2,952 respondents including 1,709 primary and secondary students, 578 teachers and 576 parents from eight districts in eight divisions of the country.
The report found 69.5 percent of students did not participate in te distance learning and 57.9 percent did not join classes due to a lack of devices.
About 25 percent of teachers and guardians feared a sharp rise in school drop-out rates due to the closure that started on March 17 last year. The closure has continued despite Bangladesh returning to a certain normalcy after the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions on condition of following strict health guidelines.
The study also reported that 75 percent of students were willing to go back into the classroom soon and 76 percent of parents, 73 percent of district-level education officials and 80 percent of education-related NGO officials support reopening schools as soon as possible.
CAMPE executive director Rasheda K. Chowdhury said the report presented the real picture of education during the pandemic.
“It is clear that students are being harmed, so teachers and parents want to see school and colleges reopen soon. The government has to take a quick decision, otherwise students will continue to face damage,” Chowdhury told UCA News.
Samsul Alam, chief education officer of Kurigram district, said he does not fully agree with the findings and recommendations of the study
“The study says 70 percent of student did not access online class, which is a huge number and I don’t accept it. In my observation the number of students who didn’t have access to digital devices is fewer,” Alam told UCA News.
He noted that lots of things must be considered before reopening schools. “In many areas, it will be difficult to maintain health guidelines in schools for children. If things get worse, people will blame the government. Once the situation improves, the government will take a responsible decision to reopen schools.”
Church schools struggle to assist students
Holy Cross Brother Ranjan Purification, headmaster of church-run St. Mary’s Junior School in hilly Bandarban district, agreed with the findings of the CAMPE report and insisted that the situation is even worse in some areas.
The school had 360 students up to grade nine in 2020, mostly from poor indigenous communities.
“We arranged for online classes but no student was able to have access as they don’t have electricity, mobile phones and internet. Our teachers visited students at home, followed up on studies and took home examinations. Yet we fear 10-15 percent of students might drop out as they have got involved in various work to earn money,” Brother Purification told UCA News.
Despite the best efforts to support students, socioeconomic issues like poverty and lack of technology have negative impacts on poor students from rural, poor communities, leading to drop-outs, he lamented.
In Bangladesh, Catholic education institutes offer education to over 100,000 students, mostly non-Christians, annually through one university, 17 secondary schools and colleges, 43 secondary schools and 278 primary-cum-junior high schools, according to the Catholic Directory of 2019.
Jyoti F. Gomes, secretary of Bangladesh Catholic Education Board Trust, noted that in urban areas most students benefited from distance learning, but the picture is opposite in rural parts.
He said teachers in urban Catholic institutes gathered in small groups and arranged online classes, while students were encouraged to carry on distance learning, which means only a few might drop out in urban areas.
“I think if Bangladesh education data during the pandemic is true, it is better to open all educational institutions soon,” Gomes told UCA News.