Covid-19 and achievement of SDGs

The world successfully completed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and in UN Sustainable Development Summit held in September 2015, world leaders initiated the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the "blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all".

'Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for sustainable development' outlines a transformative vision with 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) for economic, social, and environmental development, while only SDG 4 focuses on ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

In Bangladesh, major progress has been made in ensuring  access to education. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina received the world’s highest excellence UNICEF award for her significant role in the education sector.

After an exhilarating performance in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Bangladesh embarked on embracing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The agenda has been already incorporated in some of the goals and 7th Five Year Plan. The SDG includes inclusive and equitable education. It aims at ensuring quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.

The education system has been facing a great challenge during this Covid-19 pandemic as all educational institutions have remained closed from March 2020. Examinations are postponed in undue time which is a great threat towards ensuring quality of education. It is a great obstacle to reaching the SDG Goal-4.

Developing countries like Bangladesh are facing a great problem to teach children through internet as we do not have an uninterrupted internet facility in the villages. On the other hand, a vast population do not have internet access or they are not habituated to use an android phone or any other mode of internet devices. It is good to hear that our virtual education is continuing through Sangsad Television.

 The situation tells that it is high time for Bangladesh to rethink the digitalization of the education system of Bangladesh. During the current Covid-19 pandemic situation, e-learning or distance learning has gained priority in the education sector; media, like Zoom, a video communication system, has gained huge popularity during these quarantine days.

 UNESCO estimates about 1.25 billion students are affected by lockdowns. UNDP estimates 86 percent of primary school children in developing countries are not being educated. The pandemic has re-emphasized the ‘digital divide’ and the right to internet access, particularly for those in rural areas. UNESCO estimates that closing the digital divide would reduce by more than two-thirds the number of children not learning because of school closure.

The Coronavirus outbreak brought almost all aspects of life to a standstill. Stuck at home amid the nationwide shutdown, students all across the country were left with little to do. At such a time, the a2i Program of the ICT Division and the Cabinet Division, supported by the UNDP, took initiatives to ensure remote education for the students. Separate initiatives have been taken for four educational streams: Primary Education, Secondary and higher Education, Madrasha and technical education. Remote classes not only helped them keep up with academics, but they also had the opportunity to collaborate over online resources.  

 If the shutdown continues for a long period, the competencies we expect from children upon completion of their education cycle will be negatively affected. However the most significant impact will be the increased inequality in learning as many hard-to-reach groups are now missing out on different government and other ongoing educational initiatives through state-run TV and online courses.

 The department of Primary and Mass Education has recently introduced the remote teaching for their children over phone. The name of the program is “Ghore Bose Shikhi”.  Its educators are embracing this system cordially. Certainly, this is a good symptom for us to achieve the education goal. But the challenge is facing by the teacher and students of remote areas who do not have the access to the mobile phone as well. The teachers are already started theirs activity basically in urban areas. The government has been trying to make up for this loss primarily through four platforms—TV channels, mobile networks, online and radio. We have observed that despite some limitations, secondary-level lessons are being delivered in a better way through television, but lessons for the primary students are not being delivered in a child-friendly manner.

 Considering the current and post-pandemic situation, the government should prioritise education along with other important areas like food safety and livelihood, employment generation and economic development. We may hopefully manage the adverse impacts of economic slowdown caused by the pandemic, but if we lose a generation of learners in education, it will be difficult to overcome the loss in years.

 We understand that for now the government's top priority is to address hunger and poverty resulting from the global pandemic and the unprecedented shutdown. However, it is good to see that the government has already taken some initiatives to make up for the learning loss, and has been trying to address the challenges at different levels of education.

The Ministry of Primary and Mass Education is already developing a very impressive three-phase response plan—short term (six months), medium term (12 months) and long term (24 months)—which is in its final stage. The plan includes students' improvement tracking, regular assessment, teachers' skills development, health-hygiene, protection of learners, among many other things. We hope the plan will be finalised and approved by the decision makers as soon as possible. The plan should consider revisiting the syllabus and discontinuing unproductive national exams like the Primary Education Completion Exam (PECE).

 The lessons currently being aired on TV for primary students have to be more attractive with provisions for learning through games, cartoons, etc. As nearly 30 percent of our primary students are first-generation learners, their parents are unable to help them with their education at homes.

Since 96 percent of our population has access to mobile phones, their networks could be used for providing lessons (that are already being given through TV or other platforms) to primary children for one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening.

The mobile phone service providers should contribute here through providing free service to the unreachable children as part of their corporate social responsibility. BTRC can make such a suggestion to the mobile phone companies with specific guidelines for doing it. It would make a huge difference in primary education during the shutdown period if carried out with appropriate strategies and proper monitoring.

People across the country are now passing a crucial time to cope up with the Covid-19 pandemic. When the work has been started a good start for building a blueprint and more sustainable future for all namely Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) where this pandemic has already become a curse for all.

SDG-4 is an important goal for achieving the sustainable development of the world. Due to Covid-19 pandemic, ensuring quality and equitable education has become under threat to achieve. But it is good to note that the countries are trying their level best to ensure continuity of primary education through various online and virtual education. Bangladesh has been teaching their students through Sangsad Television. The Covid-19 makes the policymaker to rethink about the digitalization of the education system of Bangladesh. During the current Covid-19 pandemic situation, e-learning or distance learning has gained priority in the education sector; media, like Zoom, has gained huge popularity during these quarantine days.

We know for a fact that some of these are already happening, but the tension is growing rapidly about the tenure of the sustainability of the Covid-19 pandemic. The initiatives of Primary and Mass Education “Ghore Bose Shikhi” is certainly a remarkable initiative towards achieving the SDG-4. Therefore, it is time to embrace the initiative for ensuring the quality education.

Afroza Nice Rima is a contributor to Bangladesh Post