Education and The Pandemic: The ostrich syndrome is not the answer – The Daily Star


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The proverbial ostrich buries its head in the sand in the face of danger, assuming that if it cannot see the hazard, the hazard does not exist or will disappear. Denial of obvious problems as a response to them is thus known as the "ostrich syndrome". Actually, ostriches don't bury their heads to avoid danger, but they dig holes in the dirt to make nests for their eggs and check on them frequently. Ostriches are more sensible than many humans, who refuse to see obvious problems and whose solution to problems is to pretend that the problems or risks don't exist.

Schools re-opened partially on September 12 after remaining closed for the better part of two academic years. The decision-makers' dilemmas in a difficult situation cannot be underestimated. Yet, it is not helpful if authorities behave as if everything will be fine if they pretend that nothing much has happened and schools can go back to a normal routine. The SSC and HSC exams have been held, albeit in an abridged form, the admission process and dates for the new school year starting in January have been announced, and schools have been advised to hold their annual exams. Most students will start a new grade in January, having missed most lessons from the previous two grades.

It is far from fine for these students. With minimal learning engagement in almost two years, were they ready for lessons for the new grade after being auto-promoted from their previous grade in 2020? Come January, will they be ready for their lessons after another virtual auto-promotion to the next grade? Students are attending school now for a very limited number of hours and days since mid-September. And from what we hear, up to a quarter of students, especially girls, have not returned to school.

The pandemic has been an unprecedented global crisis, not just for the education sector, and the end is not in sight. An extraordinary situation demands an exceptional and bold response. It does not make sense to presume that the education machine could be restarted where it was left off in March 2020, as if the intervening 18 months did not matter. In fact, the plan to bring all students to their classes and start the normal instruction routine did not work out.

Many private schools outside the government's subsidy net (known as MPO) have not reopened. Vaccinating all older students and keeping students, teachers and their families protected has not gone well. There are warnings about a new and more infectious variant of Covid-19, the Omicron, which have led to the re-imposition of general and schooling restrictions in many countries. The education minister said restrictions would be practiced in our schools again if necessary.

Welcoming school re-opening in September, 10 educationists of the country, including myself, jointly recommended four urgent steps as part of a learning recovery and an accelerated learning agenda in response to the special situation (The Daily Star, "Four urgent steps to put students on track for learning," September 25, 2021).

First, a rapid assessment of students' grade-level preparedness was needed. Simple tools for rapid assessment of core grade-level competencies in Bangla and mathematics at the primary level and Bangla, English, mathematics and science at the secondary level should be designed and applied in order to determine the students' grade-level readiness. The result should then be used to place students in an appropriate recovery phase—including accelerated learning activities for core skills—to bring them up to their grade-level readiness.

Second, prolonging the current school year and introducing a permanent September-June school calendar was recommended. Extending the current year to June 2022 would provide more time for the students and the school system to adapt to the new situation, assess students' preparedness, and avoid rushing to public and annual exams by December (which is happening now). There are also ample climate-related reasons to permanently shift to a September-June school calendar, with a predictable and long summer vacation between July-August and classes held during Ramadan with modified hours.

Third, scrapping the Primary Education Completion Examination (PECE), the Junior School Certificate (JSC) and equivalent exams was urged. The energy and efforts of students and teachers should be devoted to recovering from learning loss, rather than preparing for exams.

Fourth, teachers needed support to implement learning recovery. Guidelines and orientation should be provided to schools and teachers regarding the implementation of a learning recovery plan, especially on: a) use of rapid assessment of grade-level student preparedness; b) pedagogic approaches for assisting students using results of the rapid assessment; c) instructional planning to focus on core competencies aiming to help students become self-reliant learners; and d) providing socio-emotional support to students and communicating with both students and parents. Online platforms should be used extensively for the guidance and orientation of teachers, as well as to complement classroom teaching for the students.

This urgent appeal, however, has not evoked any reaction from the authorities. They are hell-bent on going back to the old routine, no matter how this has affected the students. The decision-makers have not been moved by the warning that, without the proposed steps, most students would not be able to keep up with their grade level lessons, their deficits would be cumulative and that they would be harmed permanently.

It is necessary to get away from the unfortunate mindset that prevails, which is that the schools and the teachers need to conduct their lessons and "cover" the syllabus within the set number of class hours in the school calendar. What students learned, or if they learned at all, was their own business. Meanwhile, a formula has emerged with a set pattern of public exam questions, which could be answered by memorising guidebooks in coaching centres or with private tutors. This formula, plus a little bit of a liberal approach to marking tests, would ensure a high pass rate in public examinations—real learning be damned. 

The golden jubilee of Bangladesh's independence this year is an occasion for taking a retrospective and prospective look at the progress and challenges in many fields, including education. A longer term view, however, can hardly be taken unless the education system stands on its feet now and survives this month, this year or the next.

Dr Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at Brac University.

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