Today schools reopen nationwide. After two tumultuous years of living with the pandemic, students in all of the country’s 35,000 schools will return to physical classes — learning directly from teachers and playing with friends.
Unlike previous school reopenings during the heights of Covid that ended with them shutting again due to infection cases, Education Minister Trinuch Thienthong has vowed that schools will not close in future even if there are infections.
The policy is more than welcome. Two years of online education has had a drastic effect on children’s education at unimaginable levels.
A survey conducted on 12,801 institutes by the Education Ministry last year confirmed Covid’s awful cost to children’s education. Some 80% of schools reported that underprivileged students had no access to online learning due to a lack of devices or internet access, while their home environment was in many cases unsupportive of such learning. The survey also found that 79% of parents had no time to help their children with their studies at home and that 62% of schools said that the quality of learning failed to reach acceptable levels.
Economic hardships brought upon by the pandemic likewise affected education. More than 230,000 students from low-income families reportedly dropped out of school after their parents lost their salaries.
While the full-scale reopening of schools is welcome, the authorities must not forget that the pandemic is not yet over. The virus could still mutate into a more robust strain that can outsmart vaccines, and more mass infections are possible.
Back-to-school is a big challenge to Education Minister Trinuch who needs to find a balance between bringing the Thai education system back to a new normal while dealing with Covid health safety concerns.
Among the challenges is a low vaccination rate among young students. The latest records from the Ministry of Public Health early this month showed the overall rate of vaccinations among children aged five to 11 reached only 50% of the estimated goal and there are reports that parents are still reluctant to let their students be vaccinated.
The issue of vaccine reluctancy needs to be solved as soon as possible but within limits.
While the authorities should make an all-out effort to increase vaccination rates among students, the Education Ministry needs to be aware of sensitive issues involving discrimination against unvaccinated students. The ministry must make it clear that vaccination is ultimately an issue of personal choice for students and their parents. Moreover, unvaccinated children must not be banned from going to school.
As testing will be a paramount issue in all 35,000 schools, the education and health ministries will have to make sure schools have plenty of test kits in stock. The past few years have already seen schools and parents — already suffering from economic hardship — having to pay for the regular use of test kits. The authorities cannot leave the burden to school administrators and parents alone.
Most importantly, the Education Ministry must assist those 230,000 students who had to leave school during the past two years and get them back into the education system and, if need be, provide them with scholarships and any resources required.
The school reopening today is not just normal “back-to-school”. It’s another aspect of the whole country’s reopening. To do its part the Education Ministry must be up to the task of moving students and teachers into this new reality.