Rufsa Hasina Afroze, a teacher and academic supervisor at a leading private school in Bangladesh’s capital was relieved to see students return to its campus in September after it was closed for 543 days because of the pandemic.
It was only a brief respite from online learning. With the recent surge in coronavirus cases mostly because of the Omicron variant, authorities have ordered the schools to close once more.
“It was not the same campus, but still we were happy to return,” she said. “During the whole period I missed my students and colleagues. It was a big challenge for me to adjust to the new reality.”
The closure initially was just for two weeks, until February 6. But on Wednesday Education Minister Dipu Moni announced it was to be extended for another two weeks.
Many teachers and students are upset.
“Again, we have been confined, our children are not able to come to school. Omicron is spreading, so of course there is a valid reason,” Afroze said. “We have gone back to online classes. It is surely not satisfying. Without students, campus becomes lifeless.”
The school closures are raising eyebrows at a time when Bangladesh is still allowing business events like a month-long trade fair that began last month. Thousands of visitors have flocked each day to the exhibition of furniture, handicrafts, electronics, and other goods, with scant regard for health guidelines.
An annual, month-long book fair is likely to open sometime in February in Dhaka, drawing thousands more visitors.
Experts say the lack of consistency is illogical and undermines pandemic precautions.
“If recreation centers and community centers are open, then ordering the educational institutions to be closed is contradictory, because educational institutions are rather more essential than recreation centers or trade fairs,” said Liaquat Ali, a biomedical scientist and advisor to the Dhaka-based Pothikrit Institute of Health Studies.
“So, I don’t see any coordination in these orders,” he said.
Bangladesh has reported more than 1.8 million COVID-19 cases and over 28,000 deaths since the pandemic started. It recently has seen record numbers of new infections, with new known cases soaring to more than 200,000 in January from less than 9,000 in December, according to the Health Ministry data. Deaths more than tripled, to 322 last month from 92 in December.
Teachers at another school, in Dhaka’s Moghbazar area, also were frustrated over having to restart online classes for their 500 students.
“Students just don’t get the lessons the same way online as in the classroom. It’s very important to use teaching materials to help them understand clearly,” said Mizanur Rahman, a teacher at Provati Bidya Niketon.
It’s not just about lessons in the classroom, he said.
“Students come to school and play with their mates. It develops their minds and increases knowledge. They are being deprived of these things and many more. They have become confined. They are under mental pressure. They seem to be a bit behind their usual state,” he said.
Ali said that so far, Omicron is not wreaking havoc in Bangladesh and conditions are better than during the earlier wave of the Delta variant.
“The severity of the disease is low in Bangladesh, although the number (of infections) is very, very high. But the rate of admission, the need for hospitalization, rate of need for oxygen is fairly low… The capacity of the healthcare system has not been saturated yet,” he said.
The situation could worsen, however, if infections skyrocket, since more than 4 million older people in Bangladesh have not yet been vaccinated.
“Only 35 percent have been vaccinated twice. So, there are many unprotected groups of people, and we must be cautious about jumping to the conclusion that there will be no catastrophe,” Ali said.
“The measures the government has taken, I must say, are a bit slow because Omicron is a fast-moving virus and the steps were taken a little late. So, we are running far behind the virus,” he said.
Afroze says many of her school’s 200 teachers and 2,000 students, most of them from affluent and upper middle-class families, are suffering various mental traumas from the pandemic.
“Our mental health is still under stress. Some students belong to nuclear families, their parents are busy at work, many have lost their dear ones, and many families have suffered financially,” she said.
“We were just recovering from distress,” she said. “Schools are closed again. But everything will depend on how the virus is behaving.”