The slogan of International Literacy Day of 2021 has been chosen as “Literacy for a human-centred recovery: Narrowing the digital divide”. It definitely goes with the current Covid-affected global scenario. The education and literacy situation has been seriously hampered across the world coupled with further widening of the gap that prevailed in the field of education in terms of using digital devices. It has adversely affected the life of 773 million people throughout the world. In response to the COVID-19, both developed and developing countries adopted some measures that failed to include the literacy situation—neither to keep it functioning let alone improve it. Many organisations that worked for removing illiteracy had to stop their programs in the Covid-19 pandemic. It is, of course, true that the affected people must be cured and unaffected must be protected. This effort claimed a huge amount of money that many developing countries could not afford. However, the defence budget hardly sees such constraint and this constricts the literacy activities of the poor nations even though the improvement of literacy means the improvement of a nation. Even the literate are forgetting their literacy because of educational institutions being shut, keeping them detached from academic activities. However, the alternative way of running educational activities using digital devices has further widened the gap between the urban and rural, and poor slum dwellers and rich city dwellers. Those who could afford Zoom, Google meet, bdren have continued their literacy as well as advanced way of using it and just the opposite thing happened to the poor students. I paid a visit to Rangpur and Gaibandha to see for myself the current situation of education from August 30 to September 02 and talked to the people concerned – the teachers, students, guardians and education officers. What I found is that the students have forgotten to write at the usual pace. They are taking a longer time to write some known words and sentences. This has happened due to not being in touch with reading and writing as I assumed and the people concerned expressed the same opinion.
Different countries adopted different alternative ways to continue education such as distance learning, blended learning, and digital learning. However, for the continuing literacy program no such step was taken. Quickly nodding towards digital learning, the gap has become widened, about which this year’s literacy day slogan is telling us. However, it’s a positive thing that many students, teachers and others concerned with education, quickly adopted this changed situation. People of various ages could adjust with this, and that has created a big virtual world with which we didn’t have any connection before Covid-19. Those who could not adjust with this change are the `digitally illiterate’. The current world does not want to see any `digitally illiterate’ people, as it is the demand of the age. The American Centre arranged a program on how to introduce an online examination, all the guests attended but the chief guest, Chairman–UGC could not join it on time. But he joined it half an hour later because of this `digital illiteracy’ which he expressed openly saying that he was still digitally illiterate and would be literate soon.
Due to the Out of School Children Program under PEDP-4, children whose age ranges between 8 and 14 years, are coming to school as the second chance of their life. Five lakh students were supposed to be enrolled in the January of 2021 which did not happen due to the Corona pandemic. 32000 learning centres were supposed to be established which was also not done. One lakh children have never been to school or dropped out of school in six districts such as Dhaka, Chattogram, Kishoreganj, Gaibandha, Sylhet and Sunamganj are receiving primary education as pilot project under the leadership of Bureau of Non-Formal Education (BNFE) but Corona has seriously hampered the entire process. This project is going to be closed in December 2021 and will partially continue till March 2022 to get the students enrolled in grade six. But we think it should be extended up to December 2022 so that the enrolled students can adjust themselves with the new situation in secondary schools otherwise they are likely to drop out as they have already experienced a serious learning gap that may discourage them from continuing education.
Directorate of Primary Education (DPE) showed a report in 2017 that showed the dropout rate in primary education was 18.4 per cent and the children who had never been to school constituted two per cent. On the basis of these statistics, the country saw 2.8 million children aged between eight and fourteen who have been out of school. The `Reaching Out of School Children’ (ROSC) project established more than 22 thousand schools for the helpless and deprived children that accommodated six lakh 24 thousand 104 students in more than 150 Upazilas. However, many of these schools have been closed due to irregularities and corruption. The students of the schools that still exist have no connection with the teachers during this long eighteen months of Covid-19 pandemic, giving us the message that the children who have earned literacy and some skills have forgotten it by this time. Many of these students have no trace, some have taken hazardous jobs for their survival and some have even joined the miscreants who commit anti-social activities. This tends to create a big social disorder and imbalance. After reopening of the school, we are not sure how many of them will return to school. Those who will come back to school will have to face serious setbacks, and hence special arrangements will be necessary for them, but do our authorities have any such kind of plans? These children are plagued by poverty, negligence of the society, separation of their parents, natural disasters and law enforcing agencies that arrest them on various occasions. 20 per cent of these children become subject to physical torture and 14.5 per cent sexual harassment and 46 per cent girls experience sexual harassment as the Ministry of Social Welfare identifies. Social and Economic Enhancement Program shows in its research that 44 per cent of these children are drug addicted, 41 per cent don’t have any bed to sleep and 40 per cent cannot take bath, 54 per cent go without any care when sick and 75 per cent cannot meet any doctor even when they get a disease. What will happen to the literacy of these children? What will happen to the children and adults who have become literate according to the traditional definition of literacy but still digitally illiterate?
The writer is the Chief of BRAC’s Out-of-School Children Education Program