Mahadi Hasan is an eighth grader at Ideal School and College in Dhaka’s Motijheel. His transition to the ninth grade is approaching, making this a crucial time in his education.
Her mother Rokeya Akter, a resident of Wari, is deeply concerned about the violent clashes and vehicle burnings amidst the political turmoil throughout the past week.
She decided not to send him to school in these uncertain circumstances despite the need for Mahadi to learn his lessons regularly. Rokeya admitted the dilemma they are facing.
"This situation cannot continue. We can't risk sending our children to school in such uncertain times. But I don't want them to suffer another significant setback like we did during the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected their education."
After several years without any major turmoil, the country's politics has again turned turbulent in the lead-up to the 12th parliamentary elections. The BNP has enforced a general strike and a blockade after clashes during their rally in the past week. It has called another blockade starting on Sunday.
This has raised concerns about the education system, which aims to finish the current academic year by November-end.
Parents are hesitant to send their children to school because of the political situation, and there are fears that the election-related crisis could persist.
Teachers in Dhaka have noticed a significant decline in student attendance as a result of these disruptions. In many schools in the capital, student attendance has fallen below 50 percent during the three-day blockade.
Rokonuzzaman Sheikh, the assistant headmaster at Motijheel Ideal School, said many parents opted to keep their children at home during the three-day blockade, even though teachers and staff were present.
On Tuesday, the school had 40 percent of its students attending the morning shift and 30 percent in the day shift. Attendance improved slightly on Wednesday, with 50 percent of students present in the morning shift and 35 percent in the day shift.
FRESH CHALLENGE SURFACES
The country's educational institutions faced significant disruptions due to prolonged political violence before and after the 10th national election in 2014.
Additionally, schools were closed for a year and a half starting in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The upcoming 12th parliamentary election is scheduled for early January, and the Ministry of Education has directed schools to complete the academic year by Nov 30, even cancelling the usual summer vacation to prevent disruptions.
However, students and parents are concerned about potential clashes on the streets over the elections.
Tasfia Ahmed, a ninth-grader at Mirpur Girls' Ideal Laboratory Institute, missed four days of school because of the general strike and blockade.
"Our annual exams are just a few days away, and attending class was very important. However, my mom didn't allow me to go to school," she explained.
“Buses are being set ablaze, and conflicts are erupting. What if you get caught up in all this?” Tasfia quoted her mother, Husneara Begum, as saying.
Husneara is concerned about her daughter's safety and believes life is more important than studies.
Hamida Ahmed is a sixth-grade student at Sher-E-Bangla Nagar Govt Girls' High School.
Her mother, Sonia Begum, a resident of Sutrapur, said they are worried about the new classroom evaluation system, especially because the students have already fallen behind in their studies during the coronavirus pandemic.
She expressed concerns that frequent political disruptions could further jeopardise children’s education and make it challenging for parents to send them to school in such a chaotic situation.
Arafat Hossain, an SSC candidate at Monipur High School and College, said he had to skip his study session due to a clash involving garment workers in Mirpur on Tuesday.
He stressed the importance of attending coaching classes and expressed fears about a deteriorating situation if political activists continue to clash.
“I heard that a bus was set on fire on Ceramics Road near our location,” he said.
Arafat appealed to politicians to consider the impact of programmes like blockade on students.
TEACHERS EXPRESS UNCERTAINTY
Asma Begum, vice-principal of Dhaka Residential Model College, reported a drop in student attendance during the blockade.
She explained that only those living nearby and feeling safe are attending, as no one wants to risk their safety.
She expressed uncertainty about whether they can complete the annual examination and evaluation by November, as it depends on the political situation.
It's natural for parents to be concerned, she noted. "I'd feel the same if I were a parent."
Ashrajit Roy, a teacher at Government Laboratory High School in the capital, noted that even though classes were being held during the blockade, students were not showing up.
Examinations for all grades except VI and VII are scheduled to begin on Nov 5. However, he believes that if the political situation worsens, meeting the Nov 30 deadline for completing the academic year will be impossible.
CALL TO PROTECT EDUCATION FROM POLITICAL TURMOIL
Experts stress that political parties should make sure that issues like education are not harmed by political disputes and the right to rally during their agenda implementation.
Rasheda K Choudhury, the former adviser to the caretaker government and the executive director of the Campaign for Popular Education, pointed out that even in places like Sri Lanka, which endured a lengthy civil war, educational institutions remained open.
She also mentioned that during periods of extremism in Nepal, educational institutions were declared as "safe zones."
She believes that students, parents and educational institutions are the first to be affected when there is a fear of potential political violence in Bangladesh.
"Parents and students are anxious. If travel isn't safe, it worries everyone, including parents, students, and teachers."
The former primary and mass education adviser stressed the importance of all political parties reaching a consensus on this issue.
Md Belal Hossain, the director (secondary) of the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education, affirmed that they would adhere to the government's directives if the situation deteriorates.
"It's a political decision, so we'll swiftly execute whatever decision our ministry makes at the grassroots level," he said.
He believes there won't be any admission problems in the next academic year because the process is online.
[Writing in English by Arshi Fatiha Quazi]