Early-grade education during Covid-19 closures
When the countrywide school closure was announced to tackle the spread of Covid-19, formal education of primary school-going children in thousands was put on hold. Reading – of textbooks and storybooks – came to a sheer drop.
Alongside continued access to print-rich environment and a scope to discover mirrors and windows in books that children need, they must be supported to acquire reading skill before they complete grade 2. It is crucial – states a Room to Read literacy research – that children gain the skill to read by that time so that they become confident readers and, therefore, do not lose interest in going to school and ultimately become dropouts.
The ongoing school closure, therefore, appeared as a crisis to education. To continue to reach children now out of school, Room to Read Bangladesh adapted its education resources and program outreach while strengthening remote monitoring. Distant education support in the form of both digital and print resources helped children continue learning during the challenging time. These are expected to compensate for the learning loss and minimize the learning gap created as a result of the Covid-19 general closures.
From April to August, Room to Read Bangladesh reached thousands of students – of Grade 1 and 2 especially – by reaching parents 79,049 times with education resources posted on YouTube and Education Hub, which is Government managed pool of learning materials. We also sent 211,892 messages carrying direction for parents on how to help children continue learning, and for teachers on where to source classroom instruction materials.
The televised 26 episodes that feature over 70 children’s storybooks of various genres were added to the pool of 53 videos on YouTube to increase accessibility. Besides the stories that are read aloud, the videos contain visual-rich, made-easy lesson instructions on learning Bangla alphabets. Flipbook style rendering of 53 more stories were uploaded to a massive archive of Room to Read’s global resources on Literacy Cloud.
On YouTube during April-August, more than 420,824 people were reached securing 39,240 ‘organic’ views. A total of 2,005 hours of Room to Read videos were watched. An analysis of the online traffic infers, more than one-third viewers are likely to be school teachers. On Education Hub, Room to Read videos secured more than 36,375 views.
A major part of this ‘New Normal’ necessitated digitization of Room to Read’s existing print resources and development of new print resources – especially for children whose parents do not have access to the Internet – that can effectively engage children in various learning activities during their obligatory home-stay and also sensitize them with the ‘Social and Emotional Learning’ content incorporated in simplified form. Room to Read also sourced its televised rendering of storybooks from Duronto TV – very popular children’s content distributor – to make it readily accessible online. Links to Playlists were shared via text messages and continued storytelling on Facebook.
Low-tech solutions such as printing Story Cards to help develop reading comprehension skill, Worksheets that methodically help children write out letters and complete homework, started supporting students to continue learning. These print materials were delivered to the doorstep of the children with support from local courier outlet who maintained Covid-19 safety measures.
Some of these adaptation of existing literacy activities were part of Room to Read Bangladesh’s 3-year literacy project funded by USDA/WFP for low-income communities of Cox’s Bazar, where nearly 44,000 children are being supported. The rest 101,511 children supported are in old parts of the Dhaka city and in remote communities of Sirajganj and Natore. As part of the Education Sector working group and funded by UNICEF, Room to Read Bangladesh has also developed competency framework to test Rohingya children’s literacy situation, to assess in-camp teachers’ capacity and is also developing a set of literacy contents to support 299,677 children in the camps.
Backstage, the pandemic has reinforced the value of remote work: troubleshooting from far away and sometimes converging different time-zones, holding online meetings, workshops and trainings. While this “New Normal” has taught the organization to be conservative in planning, it has also widened the vista of possibilities and welcomed out-of-the-box ideas and ambitious targets.
For adolescent girls in secondary school, the uncertainty of the Covid-19 situation might manifest in several adverse ways. Besides growing a crisis-induced trauma, some might never make it back to school and fall prey to child marriage. To combat this, Room to Read Bangladesh doubled its outreach strategies to now out-of-school girls and also tagged their parents in the call to remind about the importance of education, to assure them with messages of solidarity. As was recommended, girls continued to watch distance learning program telecast by Government and engaged themselves in various creative endeavors as a means of expression. A total of 35,519 remote mentoring sessions were delivered to support adolescent girls at risk of not returning to school or child marriage.
To increase reach with early-grade literacy contents and its frequency, Room to Read Bangladesh’s plan on customizing learning contents and feed into free outbound calls via an Interactive Voice Response system is in the pipeline. So is the development of 12 detailed instruction videos targeting capacity development of primary school teachers, and 20 stories read-aloud by Bangladeshi celebrities – the likes of Riaz, Tanvin Sweety, Shahiduzzaman Selim, Deepa Khandakar and Sharmin Lucky. While these contents do target national dissemination, they will also be brought closer to primary and secondary audience via mediums that exists and are popular in the rural context. To leverage on these existing channels, Room to Read Bangladesh has already carried out a phone-based survey on the access to Internet, ownership of smartphone and radio as well as local cable TV subscription. By the time these metrics are synced with the dissemination plan of the video and audio resources, the organization also hopes to have completed the development of videos focusing the life-skill education of adolescent girls.
Although Bangladesh is announced a middle-income country, majority of children in the remote and poverty-prone communities are still at risk of dropping out, of child labor and child marriage. During the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, more than 17M primary school children (8.8M girls) are experiencing the lack of face-to-face education (July, UNESCO). Despite invigorated digital and non-digital efforts from the Government and a host of non-profit organizations including Room to Read Bangladesh, one in every three children could not access education materials during the ongoing school closures. On the International Literacy Day, the country needs to reflect on ways to mitigate the digital divide, and to pave pathways to how innovative and effective pedagogy, resources and media can be adopted toward SDGs.