Around 35 percent of about 75 lakh kindergarten students would finally drop out of school, according to an estimate by a kindergarten association
After the heavy rainfall on Monday (July 20), Avoy Das Lane, the road in front of Shirajul Alam Bhuiyan's house in the capital's Tikatuli area became flooded.
He waded through the murky water to the school he had founded 17 years ago, unlocked the door to the principal's room and sat in his chair.
Shirajul spent the entire afternoon there, waiting to see if any parent showed up to collect homework copies or children's worksheets.
The kindergarten – Bhuiyan International Kids School – that once used to buzz with children's footsteps and giggles now resonated with silence. No one came.
Shirajul returned home wishing for the day when the pandemic would come to an end and students would return to school.
"I dig into my pockets to find candies whenever I meet a student. I always keep candies with me. Children give me a big smile when they get one," Shirajul said during an interview over the phone.
Shirajul's school is just one of about 40,000 kindergartens across the country that are likely to face a dire future as funds in the form of admission and tuition fees have dried up in the pandemic.
It has been more than four months since all educational institutions, including those kindergartens, suspended classes on government instructions.
Hardly anyone foresaw at that time that Covid-19, a contagious disease caused by the novel coronavirus, would halt academic activities for so long.
There are more dismal numbers. An association of kindergartens estimated that 35 percent of about 75 lakh kindergarten students would finally drop out of school. And as many as 6 lakh teachers and staff are facing the risk of losing their livelihood, said Mizanur Rahman Sarker, secretary general of the Bangladesh Kindergarten Association.
As weeks rolled into months, some upscale private schools scrambled to reach out to parents and students by phone calls and emails and began holding virtual classes.
The others had challenges on the way. They hurried to organise logistics and teachers amid the shutdown to get back in touch with students and their parents.
Shirajul also persuaded some of his teachers to prepare video content. He edited and uploaded them on the Facebook page – Biks Edu – of his kindergarten.
He would later find guardians, who belonged to, as he said, the middle class or lower middle class, immersed in their own plight.
The education of their children was probably not on the list of priorities as they themselves were dealing with financial shock. Some of them returned to their village homes while others did not have internet connections, mobile phones or laptops to access digital content.
Meanwhile, dues – rent of the school premises and payment of staff – kept adding up.
Small kindergartens like Shirajul's catered to families who wanted their children to have a joyful learning experience at low cost, said Mizanur of Bangladesh Kindergarten Association.
Though mostly set up in residential buildings, classes were less crowded and teachers tried to pay attention to every child. Students learnt while playing together with teachers and dancing to music.
The pandemic snatched away the joy of learning from the children and the lifeline from the institutions.
Many kindergarten teachers have already changed professions to survive, and many owners have moved into school premises with their families to cut the cost on rent and salvage their institutions, Mizanur said.
As the schools are caught between a rock and a hard place, the Bangladesh Kindergarten Association wrote to the prime minister on June 1, urging the government to support kindergartens and similar educational institutions with financial incentives or soft loans.
"In schools like ours, we do not have large amounts in deposit. Many parents pay the admission fees days after the admission and monthly fees at the end of a month," Shirajul said.
When the shutdown began on March 17, he was unprepared to pay the salaries of teachers and other staff. He waited but most parents refused to pay ever since.
Ahead of the vacation of Eid-ul-Fitr in April, Shirajul gathered courage to contact parents and requested them to pay dues. Only three-four guardians among 85 students honoured his request.
After having been in the profession for 29 years, he wonders at the age of 50 what else he can do now for a living.
He tried to give worksheets and homework copies to parents on Saturdays and Sundays to keep students in school, and is now thinking of organising classes using free versions of video conferencing platform – Zoom.
That would require additional investment of money, energy and emotion, but what if he fails to draw students this time as he did before, Shirajul said.