Education experts said special allocations and massive measures are a must for ensuring enrolment and preventing dropouts
Chiladuli Government Primary School in Islampur upazila of Sirajganj has 208 students. Most of them are from ultra-poor families.
Students get a meal, every day, from the school and barely get another at their homes.
However, the school has now been closed because of Covid-19, and their meals – as well as their families' incomes – have reduced to almost zero.
Abdul Mannan, head teacher at the school, fears his school may lose a good number of students as most of them will lose their interest in their studies and their families will opt to send them to work – rather than back to school.
This is the state of a school in an area prone to river erosion.
Most students at government primary schools across the country are from lower-income families.
Education experts and teachers think special allocations and a super master plan can help lower the dropout rate at the primary level. The government must make and implement one as soon as possible.
School meals and stipends alone will not be sufficient to reduce the number of dropouts and increase enrolment after the pandemic, they said.
The primary and mass education ministry has been providing biscuits, each packet containing 370 kilogram of calories, to students in 104 upazilas.
The ministry also introduced meals at 2,166 schools in 16 upazilas in 2020.
Abdul Mannan said children, now, will not come to school with hungry stomachs. Rather, they will go to the fields to work.
"We can prevent dropouts if the government announces incentives or special financial care for students from ultra-poor and poor families," he said. "Otherwise, all achievements of the government will be in vain."
Nayon Mia, father of a fourth grader at the school, said his family comprises five members. He bears his family expenses working as a day labourer. His situation improves slightly when he is able to save some money from his earnings. However, he spent all his savings after the novel coronavirus struck the country.
"I want my son to continue his studies but I am afraid of a financial crisis following the virus. I will have my dreams broken as he will have to work with me," he said.
Ajit Kumar Pal, headmaster of Sirajabad Government Primary School in Sirajganj, said they provided meals for one time to each student before the pandemic. Student participation was almost 100 percent. However, after Covid-19 it will definitely decline.
"Many families go to Dhaka every month when they face financial difficulties. I assume the number will be higher after the pandemic. It will need an extra plan from the government to handle such a disaster at the primary level."
A recent report of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics showed that the poverty rate will rise to 40 percent, from 20 percent, due to the impact of Covid-19.
Rasheda K Chowdhury, executive director of Campaign for Popular Education, said the novel coronavirus is a global pandemic that will send many people below the poverty line. It will affect education, too.
"We observed that dropouts increased after the cyclones Sidr and Aila in coastal areas. Dropouts may increase after Covid-19 also," she said.
"The government must take measures to overcome the situation. It can make a three-year plan to prevent dropouts. Special allocations are also a must," she added.
Manzoor Ahmed, professor emeritus at Brac University, said a good number of people live below the poverty line. They have no work now. They will definitely send their children to work and it will be a shock for the country's primary education.
"The government must identify the ultra-poor families and help them financially. Otherwise, it will be tough to prevent dropouts, and enrolment will also decrease," he added.
Primary and mass education ministry's initiative
Md Akram-Al-Hossain, secretary to the primary and mass education ministry, told The Business Standard that the ministry will do everything necessary to overcome all obstacles toward the success in enrolment and reducing dropout rates.
"We are undertaking a massive plan to prevent dropouts across the country. We have already asked upazila primary officers, school managing committees, head teachers and other teachers to make a list of ultra-poor families. We will nurture the families so that they do not stop sending their children to schools," he added.
"We have also increased the stipend from Tk100 to Tk150 each. Additionally, each student will get Tk1,000 to buy clothes and shoes," he said.
Md Nurunnabi Sohag, senior assistant secretary of the ministry, told The Business Standard that the ministry will provide Tk3,300 crore as a stipend.
"We asked headmasters to provide 50 packets of biscuits to each student at schools in 104 upazilas for the months of March and April, so that students have a minimum calorie intake every day. We are conscious about the students' future," he said.
There are 130,000 primary schools with a total of over two crore students nationwide.