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Today School gates edge open for some

Today marks not only the reopening of the country to foreign visitors but also a big comeback for many students who have been away from school and friends for months.

Schools have been shut for most students following the third wave of the Covid-19 outbreak which began in April. They are set to reopen tomorrow when the new term begins, much to the anxiety of some parents and excitement of many students.

Getting children back to school is the Education Ministry’s priority and it has made preparations for resumption of classes.

Virtual learning a stopgap only

Education Minister Treenuch Thienthong said the vaccination campaign for students aged 12-18 was introduced to allow children to get back to school.

It is agreed that online teaching does not suffice and the classroom atmosphere and school activities are important for children’s all-round development.

“The prime minister and the government are concerned about children’s learning. We believe online education is inadequate for development in the long run. That’s why we encourage the students to get vaccinated,” she said.

The inoculation programme, which was launched on Oct 4, targets five million Thai and foreign children aged 12-18.

Of the total target, 3.8 million have registered for jabs and more than 56% have received their shots. More than 70% of school teachers and staff have also been vaccinated.

Ms Treenuch expects more children to register for the Covid-19 vaccine as their parents’ anxiety about the vaccine safety is easing. About 10 million doses of Pfizer have been allocated for the rollout.

The Education Ministry and the Public Health Ministry have also drawn up a handbook for reopening schools while still having to live with Covid-19, she said.

It tells schools how to ensure safety for students from Covid-19 using the “Sandbox Safety Zone in School” and what to do when a Covid-19 case is discovered.

“So we think we are ready to a certain extent to allow schools to hold on-site classes under Covid-19 control measures. The public has come to realise that we will have to live with the virus and learn to adjust,” she said.

Ms Treenuch said rapid Covid-19 screening will not be a primary measure and students will not be tested for Covid-19 before class, she said.

Based on studies overseas, the Public Health Ministry believes the test kits are not as useful as they were expected, she said, adding the antigen test kits will be used in a contingency plan, when infections are reported, she said.

“Living with Covid-19 is something new. The virus will be here for a while and we need to adjust and transition back to schools. If we’re stuck in fear, our education can’t go further,” she said.

She said the ministry is not holding back some 10,000 small schools with 120 students scattered across the country which can provide on-site classes due to low Covid-19 risks.

Medium-sized to large schools with 200-3,000 students can use alternative learning methods until the vaccination campaign reaches its target.

The ministry has alternative learning platforms such as “on-air” distance-learning TV, “on-demand” application-based learning, online internet-based learning, and “on-hand” home assignments.

Not every school to go on-site

Ms Treenuch said the second term will start tomorrow but not every school will fully resume on-site classes.

It depends on a number of factors such as the Covid-19 situation in local communities, vaccination rates and their readiness to handle Covid-19 risks. The ministry is heeding health authorities’ advice when it comes to health safety.

In the maximum and strict control or dark red zone, about 80%-85% of teachers should be vaccinated. As vaccines cannot protect recipients against infection completely, mask wearing and physical distancing are a must-do to curb the virus and avoid cycles of shutdown.

Schools’ readiness will be inspected by health authorities and the provincial communicable disease committees will have a say if schools will can conduct on-site classes.

“So we believe we’re prepared to a certain extent to allow students to get back to school, but not every school will do so,” she said.

Amporn Pinasa, director-general of the Office of the Basic Education Commission (Obec), said on-site learning is not made compulsory and it does not mean that unvaccinated students will be deprived of learning opportunities.

“Students can ask to continue learning online if they have concerns. Health safety comes first,” he said.

“But we prepare for on-site learning because some parents and students want to resume studying at school for interactions between teachers and students. However, activities that risk spreading the virus such as sport may have to wait.”

The Obec has been told by the disease control committee that some 10,000 schools will resume on-site class while another 19,000 schools will adopt online teaching when the term starts and will gradually resume on-site classes, he said.

Government spokesman Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana rejected a claim by Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat that the government is poorly prepared for schools to reopen.

He said Ms Treenuch has instructed state agencies to gauge the readiness of schools planning to resume onsite learning and work with health authorities to come up with a plan for safe learning.

In addition, the ministry is expediting vaccine administration to teachers and allowing schools to stick with online classes if the Covid-19 risks remain, he said.

“The economy will be able to rebound sooner if the opposition does what what is supposed to do and give its comments based on facts,” Mr Thanakorn said.

A mix of relief and concern

Suthada, a high school student in Pathum Thani, said online learning does not work for her and she and her friends can’t wait to get back to school.

She prefers on-site class because these lessons help her understand the subjects better.

“Going back to class is definitely better. Apart from seeing friends, in a physical class I can ask teachers right away if I have questions and discuss things with classmates. The communication barriers are fewer,” she said.

Poor internet connectivity is among issues frustrating students and parents with many saying it makes online learning difficult.

Suthada said she also has problems focusing during online class.

“I prefer going back to school. I think I’ve had enough of studying at home,” she said.

But she may not be allowed to return tomorrow as the inoculation programme is not yet complete. The students are scheduled to receive their second shot of vaccine this week and it will take about three days, she said.

Ms Chanita, her mother, said she is not a fan of online learning but does not think it is totally bad. In her view, it is not suitable for subjects with lab work and has significant impacts on the life skills which kids acquire from social interactions.

She said online learning during the Covid-19 also highlights the need for the government to address inequality as many children have no access to technology.

Ms Tassanee, a mother and primary school teacher in Pathum Thani, said parents at her school are split over their kids returning to face-to-face learning.

Parents were asked in a school survey if they want their kids to go back to school. The results were mixed with about 50% of parents being anxious about kids returning to school.

“As a parent I don’t want my kid to return to class if the vaccination rate isn’t 100%,” she said.

She said her child’s school will not provide on-site classes until the vaccination campaign reaches its target and she felt relieved with the school’s decision.

As for her own school, management has assessed its readiness and decided to push back on-site learning even though all teachers are fully-vaccinated.

With about 10% of parents and students infected with the virus, the school will adopt alternative learning methods when the new term starts tomorrow, she said.

“There are also concerns about infections because small children aren’t vaccinated and you can’t really keep them away from each other,” she said.

However, Mrs Tassanee said that as a teacher she prefers on-site classes because it is the best form of learning for students. Young students are easily distracted in online classes.

“It’s true you can learn from anywhere with online classes, but it’s very difficult to get students’ attention all the time,” she said. She said her school is considering holding small-group learning for 20 students at a time and may implement it in the middle of the month on condition the children and their parents are Covid-19 free.

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