Schools sing pandemic blues

Schools sing pandemic blues

Given the continuing surge of Covid-19 cases countrywide, the Ministry of Education had no choice but to postpone the start of the new school semester from June 1 to today.

When this time comes, many parents may have no choice but to send their little ones back to class despite concerns coupled with the vaccine conundrum facing all Thais.

Before schools, especially those in high-risk areas can re-open their doors to students, the Ministry of Education requires that they pass each of the 44 criteria stipulated in the Ministry of Public Health's Thai Stop Covid Plus system, which assesses schools' readiness to resume operations.

For academic institutes in the red zones -- Bangkok, Nonthaburi, Samut Prakan and Pathum Thani -- that want to open earlier, only online classes will be allowed for safety purposes. Although schools begin their semester on different days, they all must consider Oct 15 as the last day of the term so that it won't affect the examination calendar.

To ensure everyone is safe from Covid-19, teachers are being encouraged to get vaccinated as soon as possible. This is not just for their own safety but also of students and parents alike.

However, in reality, not all teachers will get the jab. So whether it's safe to bring students back to schools today remains to be seen.

This also explains why some schools -- especially private -- have decided to further postpone the start of the new semester to a later date over fears that doing so too soon is not worth the risk. Meanwhile, public and private schools have decided to go purely online so that both students and teachers can carry out their tasks from home.

Everyone knows online learning is the new normal in education but not everyone cares if students and teachers are sufficiently supported to cope with pandemic-related disruptions.

Online learning sounds fine for kids in urban areas but what about little ones in remote neighbourhoods or those whose parents live hand to mouth? For many, this new approach is a tough challenge that has only turned things from bad to worse.

Kasikorn Research Centre recently conducted a survey on the impact of online learning among parents in Bangkok and neighbouring provinces. Although virtual classes are nothing new in times of a pandemic like this, almost 80% of parents still felt that online learning is full of obstacles, with the most important issue being insufficient equipment to ensure a smooth environment.

While around 50% of Thai students have a smartphone, only 34% own a tablet. Worse, only 32% have a personal computer -- a more convenient tool for online classes. Moreover, we all know prolonged use of smartphones can be detrimental to the health of children.

Furthermore, the problem is even more complicated in families with more than one child.

The lack of proper equipment is only one piece of the puzzle that is this online learning challenge. The availability of the internet can be another hindrance. Kasikorn Research Centre reported that only 9 to 10 million Thais use high-speed internet and the majority of smartphone users still rely on top-up payments and this can create problems if the package runs out and prevents a stable internet connection during learning.

Although parents have become more familiar with online classes, they are still unable to relax when it comes to their child's study approach. Almost 60% of participating parents said education quality is their biggest concern because when it comes to online learning, students can easily become distracted due to communication-related restrictions between themselves and teachers.

Moreover, approximately 50% of parents in the survey believe long-term online classes can have a negative impact on their child's health and well-being, especially in small kids. For instance, their eyes might be damaged. Also, children need friends and social activity instead of staying home by themselves.

Of course, online learning is an essential adaptation during the pandemic but these concerns raised by parents must not be overlooked. If a digital platform is to be used for virtual classrooms for months, if not years, to come, families need to be supported properly.

While decent gadgets and newly designed curriculum should be given to kids, help should also be provided to teachers, especially those in remote areas. Who pays the internet fee if teachers are to conduct online classes from home? What kind of gadgets do they have? Who gives them the digital know-how? What kind of teaching materials are they to deliver online?

All these issues should have been figured out first before the online term start. After all, people should not be treated as laboratory mice.

Arusa Pisuthipan is the editor of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

Arusa Pisuthipan

Deputy editor of the Life section

Arusa Pisuthipan is the deputy editor of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

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