Against the odds: How Bangladesh strengthened its education system during COVID-19
- GPE funding has supported the government of Bangladesh to respond to the urgent need for distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Almost 3,000 teachers were trained on remedial education, distance learning strategies, and formative and summative assessment practices.
- Thanks to the GPE-funded program, almost 20,000 primary schools in the most disadvantaged areas were equipped with the knowledge and resources to safely reopen.
"During COVID-19, I studied at home while my parents were at work. Sometimes my sister studied with me. I would copy numbers from an exercise online and then solve [the problem] in my notebook,” remembers 8-year-old Tabassum, a student at the Cantonment Government Primary School, Dhaka.
When COVID-19 arrived in Bangladesh, around 37 million children were left without access to a school.
Prolonged interruptions of education have the potential to roll back hard-won gains in learning, especially for younger students. Children both miss out on classes and forget what they’ve already learned, making it much harder for them to catch up.
“Bangladesh had one of the longest school closures in the world – around 18 months,” says Tashmina Rahman, Education Specialist at the World Bank country office in Bangladesh.
School closures are nothing new to the country. Bangladesh is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and ranked the seventh extreme climate disaster risk-prone country in the world according to the most recent (2021) Global Climate Risk Index.
Unpredictable rainfall, floods and cyclones cause school closures every year, disrupting the continuity of education for Bangladesh’s children. But the scale of education disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic was unprecedented.
Ensuring that learning continues during school closures
In 2020, GPE launched the COVID-19 School Sector Response Project , allocating US$14.8 million to the World Bank to support the government of Bangladesh in implementing its COVID-19 response plan.
This plan aimed to ensure learning continuity, recover learning losses, re-enroll children who had dropped out of school and enable the safe re-opening of schools.
For the first time, and in response to the pandemic-related school closures, Bangladesh is taking a nationwide, structured approach to developing a distance learning system. To reach even the most marginalized children, the system was designed with both technology-based and printed learning materials.
For the distance learning materials, 246 primary and secondary teachers were recruited as script developers and presenters of digital content. “One of the most important contributions of the GPE program has been to further develop the remote learning system with over 5,000 pieces of digital content,” says Tashmina Rahman.
To ensure a high-quality learning experience for students, the GPE-funded program conducted 30 workshops to develop and validate the remote learning content.
In addition, to make sure teachers were well prepared – many had never taught in front of a camera – 957 teachers were trained on distance learning, how to use different digital meeting platforms and how to engage students to participate in a remote learning context.
However, online connectivity was not a given for all children, due to lack of internet access or available devices. “The biggest obstacle was that not all children were able to participate in the online classes,” says Ishrat Jahan, a second grade English teacher at the Cantonment Government Primary School.
Of the approximately 50 students that would attend class in pre-COVID times, only 25 to 30 were able to connect to online classes during COVID-19 school closures.
With a vision to support as many children as possible to have access to remote learning material, UNICEF Bangladesh, with support from GPE and the World Bank, developed 2,683 television lessons, 1,558 online lessons and 1,056 radio lessons, as well as printed learning packages.
These materials covered the entire national curriculum for 35 core subjects from pre-primary through to grade 10, supporting more than 1.5 million children.
The GPE funds supported Bangladesh to respond to the urgent distance learning needs during the pandemic, support learning recovery after the pandemic and ensure education continuity during future emergencies, especially floods or cyclones. With 5,297 technology-based distance learning content pieces, covering an entire curriculum from pre-primary to grade 10, schools can now cover a full academic year in remote learning mode.
Helping the youngest learners catch up
One of the main educational consequences of COVID-19 is that students continue to lag behind on their grade competencies. Younger students struggle with basic reading and mathematics skills and are in urgent need of remedial learning.
Bringing students back on track was another core objective of the GPE-supported COVID-19 School Sector Response Project.
To help young learners regain the skills lost during school closures, the program supported the government to develop additional remedial learning kits for pre-primary to grade 5 students, featuring play-based learning materials in the form of workbooks, games and learning cards.
These kits were distributed to more than 150,000 hard-to-reach children in remote and rural areas.
These supplementary materials focused on key foundations of the curriculum and were designed to be colorful and interactive to motivate young students to revisit and deepen their lessons, helping them to recover the competencies that were otherwise missed.
Preparing teachers for a holistic learning recovery
The pandemic presented enormous challenges for teachers too – and involving them was central to the education system’s recovery.
After almost two years of the pandemic, learning levels in a single classroom varied and students struggled with anxiety and, in some cases, depression.
To address this, 2,950 teachers were trained through the GPE grant on remedial education, distance learning strategies and learning assessment practices.
This helps them organize students by learning level in a classroom and better identify learning loss and remediation strategies to help students catch up.
Teachers also learned techniques they can use in the classroom to support students struggling with mental health challenges. Techniques include breathing exercises, conversations they can have with children around traumatic events, and strategies to identify those who need help.
Teachers now have more resources available to them and know how to put students in touch with the right people to intervene, where appropriate.
With GPE support, almost 3,000 teachers were trained on remedial education, formative and summative assessments, distance learning and mental health interventions. This is the first time in Bangladesh that a mental health training of this scale has been conducted.
Bringing children back to school, at scale
Students, especially those in remote areas, were more likely to drop out of school during the pandemic, putting them even further behind with their learning. Many families were also concerned about the risks of sending their children back to school.
To support the safe reopening of schools, the GPE-funded program provided grants to 19,965 primary schools in the most remote areas to help them purchase health and safety materials.
In addition, the grants helped to train 500 education administrators from different districts on health and safety COVID-19 protocols and what to do in an emergency.
Resources and practices included cleaning materials, safe handwashing rules, and how to wear masks effectively and keep a safe distance in class.
The education administrators shared this training with the teachers and schools in their respective districts, creating an environment that was safer and cleaner, motivating students to come back and stay in school.
COVID-19 has disrupted education in Bangladesh profoundly, but it has also opened an opportunity to build back better.
The GPE-funded program supported Bangladesh to respond to the most pressing learning needs in the face of country-wide school closures. It also looked to the future, helping to build resilience for the long term by equipping teachers and schools with the resources needed to navigate future emergencies.