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No smartphone, no school in Bangladesh

Rahat Rafe
October 22, 2020

While wealthy urban children can continue their schooling online during the coronavirus pandemic, lack of means and infrastructure have left the rural poor without access to education.

A digital classroom in Dhaka before Bangladesh went into lockdown
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/S. Ramany

Nine-year-old Subarna Akhter Sathi spends most of her days with friends at a local playground in Brahmanbaria, an eastern district of Bangladesh. Normally, Subarna would be in school or doing homework but most schools have been shut since late March, when Bangladesh went into lockdown to contain the outbreak of the coronavirus.

"My daughter has lost interest in studying since her school closed," Subarna's mother, Roksana Begum, tells DW. "She wakes up late and plays all day."

Read more: Why Bangladeshis no longer fear the coronavirus

The South Asian country has registered more than 394,000 coronavirus cases and over 5,700 deaths to date. 

The March 26 nationwide lockdown brought everything in the country to a near standstill, and forced 38.6 million students of all education levels out of school. Though the government eased lockdown measures after two months, education institutions are expected to remain closed until October 31.

Education in the time of COVID-19

City schools outsmart COVID-19

Bangladesh currently has an estimated 21.6 million students enrolled in its elementary and primary schools, another 13 million in secondary schools and 4 million studying at universities and colleges. According to the Ministry of Education, 76% of Bangladesh's secondary schools are located in rural areas. It says roughly 60% of primary school children attend government-run schools, which are mostly in rural areas as well.

"Rural schools lack infrastructure including digital equipment, qualified teachers and hygiene facilities," says Mahtab Uddin, a research fellow at the non-government organization (NGO) South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM). Uddin says this has hindered online schooling efforts in the country.

Bangladesh's private schools, on the other hand, have been quick to adopt online learning methods in the wake of the lockdown, offering lectures delivered via social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and YouTube.

Mostly located in urban areas, these schools are attended by the country's wealthier classes. Not only are the schools better equipped and prepared, students are also more likely to have access to required technologies at home, with parents who are usually computer literate.

Read more: Bangladeshi migrants in Italy stigmatized over coronavirus certificate scam

A long way to go

Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi government has asked state-owned radio and television stations to broadcast live and recorded lectures in an effort to address the disruption of schooling due to the pandemic. Teachers are also giving students course-related advice via mobile phone, says Akram Al Hossain, senior secretary of Bangladesh's Primary and Mass Education Ministry.  

While government efforts to reach students seem to have been successful in regard to urban areas, poor internet connections and a lack of digital devices continue to deny many rural students access to such programs.

Universities have also started delivering lectures via online platforms like Zoom but there, too, lack of technical infrastructure has been a hurdle for some students. 

"We began delivering lectures online in the face of challenges like our students' limited access to digital equipment and technology," said Mohammad Sahid Ullah, a professor at the University of Chittagong, one of the country's largest universities, with more than 25,000 students.

Ullah says, "Many faculty members show no interest in delivering online lectures, exacerbating our limitations." He says another problem they have is that student attendance can never be confirmed.

Dwindling finances

In a recent study, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), an NGO, found that 54% of Bangladesh’s rural households lacked internet access, while 59% did not have access to smartphones.

According to University of Chittagong's Sahid Ullah, the government will have to assess factors like access to technology, literacy and student capability before designing an online communication strategy.

In addition to limited infrastructure, people living in rural areas — like 9-year-old Subarna and her mother, Roksana — have been forced to grapple with lack of income since the lockdown began. Buying a smartphone for Subarna's schooling is definitely out of the question.

"My husband's income went down in recent months due the coronavirus pandemic. It has caused a great deal of suffering in our lives," Begum says, adding that buying a smartphone and data "in this crisis" would only worsen her family's economic woes.

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