Younger children struggle with distance learning
Like many Thai students, Tanwa Ngernpot, a six-year-old student in Nonthaburi province, can't return to school after the New Year holiday.
The Education Ministry last week ordered all public and private education providers in the "maximum control zones" of 28 provinces to be close until Jan 31 to limit the new wave of Covid-19 from spreading.
The 28 provinces are Bangkok, Tak, Nonthaburi, Pathum Thani, Ayutthaya, Saraburi, Lop Buri, Sing Buri, Ang Thong, Nakhon Nayok, Kanchanaburi, Nakhon Pathom, Ratchaburi, Suphan Buri, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Phetchaburi, Samut Songkhram, Samut Sakhon, Chachoengsao, Prachin Buri, Sa Kaeo, Samut Prakan, Chanthaburi, Chon Buri, Trat, Rayong, Chumphon and Ranong.
As a result, 10,323 schools are closed and forced to switch their classes to online and distance learning.
"It's not fun at all because I can't meet and play with my friends. I don't like learning in front of a computer.
"It's boring. I hope I will be able to study in a classroom again soon," the first-grader told the Bangkok Post on the phone.
Following his school's Covid measures, Tanwa has had to spend an hour a day studying via the Zoom application and do all his classwork at home. Packages of education materials have been sent to his home from school.
The school closures do not only affect students. They also present parents with new challenges to support their children's education during this time.
"Having to manage parental duties and also be teachers for them, it's really difficult for me and my wife. It's a big change for all of us," Tanwa's father Panuwat said.
Mr Panuwat said he spends several hours a day preparing and motivating his son for online classes before leaving the house as Tanwa is still too young to learn effectively on his own.
"It's not easy to keep small children focused on online learning and avoid overuse of games, social media, and cartoon videos," he said.
The father, who works as a photographer, admitted he is still struggling to balance his work and family life.
"On the day that my wife and I need to go out to work early, we have to ask my mother-in-law to look after Tanwa for us.
"For other parents who do not have someone else to help them with their kids during this period, it would be a difficult time for them," he said.
Efficiency in question
Sompong Jitradub, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Education, said data collected from his field trips in several provinces indicates online learning and teaching are effective only if students have consistent access to the internet and computers and if teachers have received targeted training and support for online instruction.
"Not all of our schools, teachers and parents are ready for homeschooling the children.
"Many children, particularly those in rural areas, still have problems like the lack of WiFi, faulty reception and limited to no access to working computers," he said.
Also, Mr Sompong said, distance learning will only be productive if students have the discipline to study and have a supportive environment in their family homes.
"My research team found that over 30% of students did not have a supportive study environment at home. Sixty-six percent of students surveyed also had no computer and 57% didn't have home internet," he added.
Mr Sompong said online and distance learning should be only used as a short-term measure because they're not the best solution for all students, especially those from low socioeconomic status backgrounds.
The expert warned the education gap between rich children in urban areas and poor children in rural areas could widen if classes are moved online for too long.
"We have found the level of knowledge among rural students in Thailand was already about three years behind students in urban areas. This division will only get worse if the school closures are prolonged," he said.
Mr Sompong said he believed this year students will face a decline in their learning performance as a result of the switch to online learning.
"Disadvantaged students will face the greatest impact. What the Education Ministry must do now, in my opinion, is to focus on helping students in smaller and more remote schools gain access to online learning materials to ensure they do not fall behind further," he said.
Another survey conducted by the Education Unit of the World Bank in Bangkok found a similar result.
The survey found the education system is fatigued and not well-prepared to implement large-scale online learning. Online resources for students in Thailand are also limited in quality and quantity.
Bigger schools are better equipped with financial, educational and technological resources than smaller schools.
Moreover, most of the Thai educational content online also replicates traditional pedagogy, which is based on what many consider to be an outmoded top-down, rote-learning approach.