The onslaught of Covid-19 shows no signs of relenting. While the infection-death curve has been arrested by some countries, our one is still climbing, as if it wants to put a flag of our collective irresponsibility at a greater summit. The disease data from the same time period of last year is of no help in understanding when a plateau can eventually be reached—partly because we are now dealing with a new variant of the virus during this second wave, whereas some other countries are already dealing with their third wave. The end, therefore, is not in sight.
Thus we have an uphill task at hand. The first challenge, of course, is to survive. We have to have faith in science, maintain social distancing, and wear masks to minimise infections. If we do survive this ordeal, the next challenge will be to adapt to the new reality. A lot has already been said about the post-Covid-19 reality. And all will agree that we cannot return to the world as it was once before. An optimist historian reminds us that after the Black Death in the Middle Age, humans came across the Renaissance, the revolutionary change in the way humans were perceived. Maybe another such revolutionary change is waiting once we turn the corner.
One area that has been hit hard during this pandemic is education. Our lack of preparedness for an emergency shows the wide-ranging inequality that persists. Such inequality can now be measured in terms of the computers and bandwidth that we have (or do not have). Such inequality has exposed the public-private fault lines. The private sector has shown much more resilience than the public one in accommodating digital and distance learning. This has actually widened the gap between learners within the span of one year. But the online learning makes us aware of another type of privatisation. The school from its public domain has moved into private locations. The classroom atmosphere has changed, and the presence of students in their domestic space has created multiple psychosocial issues.
In response, there have been many creative efforts taken by the teachers and policy makers. More and more, people are realising that there has to be a concerted and collective response to stop our students from becoming castaway individuals marooned in lonely islands. Education is a collective effort, and if we do not invest in it, we will simply create further inequalities.
One lesson that we have learnt during this crisis is the need for making science an integral part of our curricula. Every day, we are being reminded of basic hygienic rules to protect ourselves from the havoc created by a microorganism. In essence, we are being reminded that public education and public health are interconnected. In other words, education is not only for those who go to schools or colleges—it is for everyone. The students at home have brought the schooling to a domestic sphere.
Educators themselves have learnt that education cannot remain within the rigid structure of a classroom. The inclusion of television, radio, and the internet has proved that the medium needs to be flexible and accommodative. Then again, the learn-from-home model has made the guardians the proxy educators. The vertical relationship between a teacher and a student has found a horizontal model in which the delivery of education requires new stakeholders, new levels of participation of others.
Returning to school will thus require a new kind of readjustments. Already, the extreme form of individualisation, isolation, quarantine and lockdown have affected the mental health of our students. Many are struggling with the trauma of losing loved ones, the vulnerability of being affected by the disease, and the fear of being so close to death. We cannot simply assume that we know what the students are going through. Instead, we must create a space so that they can voice out their concerns, helping us draft a public policy for the psychosocial wellbeing of our future generation.
The needs are different in our three-track education system involving Bangla medium, English medium and Madrasa system. These streams with their diverse cultural orientations remain a constant source of discontent. One fix-all formula may not be enough to address the diversity that exists. At the same time, there has to be a clear assessment on how this distance from physical classrooms has affected these three different streams. We will also need to understand whether the skill sets identified for the twenty-first century are equally pursued by all three sectors. More importantly, how did the exposure to technology-driven education during this pandemic change the nature of these streams, and to what extent?
The government must assess the needs and come up with open digital resources for the use of local stakeholders. If we are to rely too much on international and private sources, we will end up having more inequalities within the system. A clear policy needs to be adopted as to how these resources can be effected in a blended or hybrid format in a post-Covid world.
The financial crunch caused by the pandemic will take years to recover—and many of the students will find it difficult to find jobs by the time they finish their education. It can even lead to a point where the very purpose of education will be questioned. Already, there are organisations that brag that they do not hire people with certificates, but people with skills. In a post-Covid world, the importance of educational institutions may come under a serious existential threat. Then there are others who are asking the students to become entrepreneurs and self-employed. One may very well ask: if I can learn from home and am expected to create my own job, what good is a school for? And if there are companies that do not even bother with certificates, why take the trouble of going through an institutional discipline? Again, the policy makers and civil society will have to play an active role in addressing this issue and clearing the very objective of education. Dodging it will cause more harm. And buoyed by the success of distance learning, if the government stops investing in physical classrooms, then we will enter another crisis room.
This virus has promulgated a great myth of being the ultimate leveller. The reality is far from it. The line separating the Global North and the Global South is more prominent than before. Countries with better technological infrastructure have shown more resilience to come out stronger out of this crisis. Meanwhile, in countries like ours, our supreme faith in the God-given vitamin D available in the sunlight is becoming wobbly by the minute. Then again, the Global North has realised that the virus is a great globetrotter; it cannot corral itself in a safe, sterilised half-hemisphere. There has to be collaboration for the sake of humanity. And education is the cement that can bond us.
Shamsad Mortuza is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).