Ten-year-old Shohana learns to read again after COVID-19 school closures
Catch-up classes give second chance to children falling behind
The last of four children, ten-year-old Shohana’s prospects are much better than those of her older siblings who had to drop out of school. Shohana dreams of a bigger life, bigger than she has been exposed to in her small home village in Mymensingh, northeast Bangladesh.
“I want to be a doctor,” says Shohana.
Like many children in Bangladesh and beyond, Shohana’s progress was disrupted by the closure of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. During what became one of the longest pandemic school closures in the world lasting 18 months, Shohana felt like she forgot everything she had learnt in school.
A timely intervention
Shohana was in Grade 2 when schools closed in Bangladesh and was expected to transition to Grade 4 after pandemic restrictions were lifted. When children returned to school, the gaps were obvious. Shohana’s teacher says children had to relearn alphabet letters at a time when they should have been making sentences. Some, like Shohana, did not immediately return to school when schools re-opened, pushing them even further behind their classmates and in danger or never returning to school.
Shohana’s father looks for work on construction sites and farms while her mother Ambia is at home cooking, cleaning and taking care of her children and grandchildren. With no computer or internet devices at home, the ten-year-old could not attend online classes and her family could not afford to hire a tutor during the pandemic school closures.
A FCDO funded and UNICEF-supported catch-up programme is helping to bring children back to school and to a knowledge level of their age. Shohana’s reading and writing have improved since she enrolled in the catch-up classes. She goes to a UNICEF learning centre in the morning and attends class at her regular primary school in the afternoon.
Shohana’s mother says although she cannot read herself, she wants a different life for her daughter and is happy with her daughter’s progress at the learning centre. Ambia’s goal was for all her children to go to school, but things were different when her older children were growing up. They had to drop out of school and work from an early age to make ends meet for the family.
“Shohana is now our hope. I help her get ready for school and support her however I can. I attend parents’ meetings at her school,” explains Shohana’s mother.
Addressing a learning crisis
Bangladesh was suffering a “learning crisis” even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with less than half of children in Grade 2 and 3 proficient in reading and math according to a 2017 assessment. A 2021 education survey shows a continuing learning crisis after the pandemic but no significant learning losses.
“That means that children who were already falling behind before the pandemic - those from the poorest families, who lack supportive devices such as computers, smartphones or TV at home and whose parents dropped out of school - are the most affected by pandemic school closures,” says Deepa Sankar UNICEF Bangladesh’s Chief of Education.
The survey also revealed that Mymensignh, Shohana’s home, had the lowest percentage of children participating in remote classes at 5.7 per cent, compared to Dhaka at 23.1 per cent.
At the UNICEF-supported learning centre children sit in colour-coded groups according to their proficiency level. This allows the teacher to pay attention to the specific needs of children. As children progress to the next level they move to another group until they eventually graduate out of the catch-up programme.
Helping children return to school with confidence
The catch-up classes are useful even beyond the impact of the pandemic school closures. Although Bangladesh has impressively achieved near-universal enrolment in primary education with 97 per cent of children of primary school age enrolled in school, many children do not actually attend. About 17 per cent drop out of primary school.
Through interventions such as the catch-up programme, UNICEF with FCDO fund supports the Government of Bangladesh to bring children back to school and help them reintegrate back to the literacy and numeracy level of their age.
With the support she is getting in the learning centre, Shohana is motivated to attend her regular classes in the government primary school. She has regained her confidence and is hopeful for a brighter future for herself and her family. Her favourite subject in school is Bengali and she is now able to read out sentences from the letters and words which she has had to learn all over again.