The government’s decision to provide rations to more than 10,000 vulnerable students has come as a timely intervention in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The decision is to ensure that children meet their daily dietary and nutritional requirements. With schools closed for almost three months and the uncertainties surrounding the reopening of schools, thousands of students will fall victim to the impact of the new coronavirus.
While nutrition requirements are important, schools for many, especially in remote parts of Bhutan, are more important than just ensuring the daily dietary intake. The meals schools provide are indirectly keeping hundreds of children in schools. It may sound far removed for those in urban areas, but the school feeding programme has been instrumental in reducing the school drop-out rates.
In some remote communities, students come to school not only for education. Primary schools in remote and economically disadvantaged communities support the ultra poor. Educationists know that some students rely on the school meals, even if it is just once or twice a day. And parents encourage their children to attend schools even if the value of the free meal is conceived as more than that of the education.
The students identified for the dry ration initiative are mostly from economically backward, displaced students, children of single parent, students with disabilities and children of divorced parents. This is the same group vulnerable of dropping out of schools.
Principals of some schools are honest when they say the drop-out rates would be higher without the free school meal. In one primary school in Bardo, Zhemgang, a head teacher told visitors that students report to school on time because of the free breakfast that the school provides.
Experts and researchers have found out that school drop-out rate is higher in our region especially during times of disasters. The fear is that the Covid-19 disaster could increase the rate.
Covid-19 has rendered many jobless and also created a shortage of labourers. The temptation is to send the children to do odd jobs when schools are closed and parents find difficulties in feeding their children. Many believe that two more hands, no matter how small they are, are better than a mouth to feed. In their hope of easing the burden, children out of schools could become vulnerable.
The implication could be long-term. Parents would, for the short term benefits of a few more Ngultrums, could continue sending children to work rather than send them back to school even after school reopens.