The end of the pandemic is not quite in sight. Schools have remained closed for a full six months now since March 17. But economic activities and life's daily business are restarting, albeit with restrictions and pleas to observe safety rules. Shouldn't children now go back to school? Striking a balance between the safety and wellbeing of children and minimising their learning loss is the key consideration in this regard. There is also the concern about children gathering in school causing a spike in infection by bringing the virus back to their families, even when children are asymptomatic.
The Ministry of Primary and Mass Education has prepared a guideline, incorporating Covid-19 related health instructions, to be followed when the decision is made to restart schools. Provisions include social distancing in classrooms, hand washing, wearing masks, having body temperature taken, and applying shifts and alternate day classes depending on the number of students and facilities in a school. Sensibly, the guideline asks each school to prepare its own plan for applying the guideline. An awareness campaign is also a part of the guideline. Posters and messages are being designed and submitted to higher officials for approval.
The ministry asked the authorities—Directorate of Primary Education, deputy commissioners and primary education officers—to make necessary preparations in this regard. "We have finalised the reopening plan and directed the relevant authorities to make preparations in line with the plan," according to a senior official of the ministry. (The Daily Star, September 9, 2020)
There appears to be an ambivalence between providing a guideline requiring schools to prepare and implement their own plan and a top-down plan relying on directives and instructions passed on by superiors, which often do not work very well.
Parents naturally have anxieties. How will the guideline be applied in some 134,000 primary schools and kindergartens, only half of which are government schools? Will there be sufficient monitoring? How will the additional costs be met? Will the pandemic subside enough so that their children will be safe in school?
It is commendable and appropriate that the ministry is thinking ahead and making plans for what is to be done when schools reopen. It has to be ensured that the necessary conditions for success are given attention and the plan is realistic and implementable.
Three major concerns raised by parents need proper attention. Do schools reopen in the whole country all at once? Does one size fit all? What can be done to meet the extra costs? How can awareness be raised effectively and all concerned—students, teachers and parents—feel assured about the guideline and local plans and support and contribute to their implementation?
I had written earlier in The Daily Star that the larger Dhaka metropolis has about one-third of the total infection cases in the country. There are likely to be large variations among regions. An upazila—there are around 500 in the country—with an average population of 350,000 would be an appropriate unit to estimate the infection rate and take necessary follow-up action. Ideally, the first step for a decision about school reopening would be to estimate as objectively as possible the upazila-wise infection rate.
The testing now is not done with any epidemiology-based sampling frame. A representative population sample from each upazila could be tested using the current RT-PCR testing procedure, complemented by larger sampling with rapid testing, such as one designed by Gonoshasthaya Kendro (which never got government approval for unknown reasons). Benchmarks for three levels of infection spread, similar to the idea once proposed (but not implemented) of red, yellow and green zones, could be used to assess the status of upazilas or even parts of upazilas, where appropriate.
No area can claim to have reached a status of complete safety, until zero infection is reported for several weeks or an effective vaccine is available. Schools could reopen in the green and yellow areas with some variation in school operation. Schools in red zones would remain closed until their status changes, as determined by testing and infection rates. One size cannot fit all. But we do not have the means for a credible upazila-based assessment of infection now.
Asked about his advice on when schools including primary schools could reopen, Dr Mushtaque Hussain, adviser to the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), said there has to be a minimum daily testing number of at least 20,000 in the country and no more than a 5 percent positivity rate continuously for three weeks for schools to reopen. Where this condition does not exist, school reopening should be delayed, according to Dr Hussain. (Prothom Alo, September 8, 2020)
Under the prevailing circumstances, individual schools need to be helped to develop their own workable plan for reopening. An upazila working group involving education authorities and education-related NGOs and civil society can assess the situation and consider appropriate plans and steps for applying the guideline in their upazila schools, both government and non-government ones.
It is not likely that the provisions in the guideline will be followed properly without financial support for schools to meet the extra costs. An allocation needs to be made to upazilas proportionate to the total number of students in an upazila, which could supplement what the schools can do on their own. The upazila working group can consider the criteria and needs and provide support to schools—both government and non-government—since more than a third of primary-level students are in non-government schools.
The awareness campaign as well as communication with teachers and parents are critical for successful reopening. The NGOs and community organisations should be involved, with the overall guidance of the upazila working group. The goal is not just reopening, but also keeping the schools operating safely and helping the children recover their learning loss. All this requires a joint effort by all.
CAMPE, the civil society forum for education with an active membership of over 200 non-governmental organisations throughout the country, and other such associations and institutions can help at the national and local levels to promote a cooperative and collaborative approach, and contribute to the reopening and recovery plan in each upazila. This can happen with a change in the mind-set of our policymakers regarding cooperation between the government and non-government actors and a provision for government funding for specific contributions that the latter make.
Dr Manzoor Ahmed is professor emeritus at Brac University. The views expressed here are his own.