As schools prepare to reopen, what toll has COVID taken on Thai children?

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Thai schools will open for the first time in more than two years on May 17 as the pandemic recedes.

The Ministry of Education has taken the decision to send the children back to school in line with the government’s transition to living with COVID as an endemic disease.

But while many children will be eager to return to the classroom, experts say their emotional and other needs must be considered as they make the big change after two years of learning from home.

Heal the souls of children

Sompong Jitradup, education expert at the Education Equity Fund (EEF) and former senior lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, suggested that schools dedicate the first month of the upcoming semester to emotional healing for children.

“The last two years have been difficult. Children are now generally unhappy. So let them blow their pain away,” he said.

He thinks the first month of school should be filled with games, talks, home visits and field trips to help lift children’s spirits and create a joyful atmosphere.

“Academic things can start later,” commented the pedagogue.

Amporn Benjaponpithak, chief executive of the Department of Mental Health, said some children may have developed emotional or mental problems because they were unable to attend classes and interact normally with others. Such problems could lead to problems like addiction to games or cell phones.

Sompong said that outside of school, many children suffer not only from a lower quality education, but also from a lower quality of play.

“Over time, they lost confidence and their emotional health suffered. They weren’t able to complete the program through online classes and they weren’t able to play and interact with friends. This lack of interaction left them dissatisfied and depressed.

Assoc Prof Dr. Suriyadeo Tripathi, child and family development expert, pointed out that prolonged stress is harmful for children. Schools could help ease their current stress by moving away from rote learning, competitive grading, and overwhelming them with homework.

In older children, stress is often cited as a reason for suicidal feelings.

Plan of the Ministry of Education

Education Minister Trinuch Thienthong said her ministry was working with the Ministry of Public Health to prepare schools for on-site learning. Schools will hold on-site classes under the “Reduce Risk, Build Immunity” COVID-19 safety protocol, which requires students and teachers to assess themselves regularly to prevent the spread of the virus.

Active learning would be promoted to build students’ knowledge and skills, making up for lost class time over the past two years, Trinuch said.

“We will also promote life and social skills.”

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Where are the priorities

EEF expert Sompong urged education authorities to focus on healing and helping children over the next few years, warning that the future of the nation was at stake.

“This generation of kids will eventually grow up and join the workforce,” he said. “Thus, the focus should not only be on on-site learning, but also on other aspects of their lives.”

He says the government should take a holistic approach to education in order to provide holistic solutions. In addition to understanding children’s needs for academic knowledge and balanced development, authorities must understand that COVID-19 is both a health issue and an economic issue. As a result, children may feel stressed as their families grapple with the burdens of daily life. Many children even had to drop out of school to earn money for their family’s survival.

Reverse the stall trend

In 2021, Thailand had 7.2 million school-aged children. Of these, 1.9 million were at risk of dropping out of school. Many of these dropouts will end up becoming unskilled workers, trapped in poverty throughout their lives in a cycle that will be repeated by their children.

“To reduce this risk, we need to provide scholarships, food, counseling and cash,” Sompong said, adding that the Student Loan Fund could be used to provide interest-free loans so children can continue their studies and progress.

Last year, 238,707 students dropped out of school. However, almost 200,000 have been brought back to the classroom thanks to the efforts of various parties, including the Ministry of Education.

“The risk of dropping out is particularly high once students complete Mathayom 3 or lower secondary,” Sompong said.

He added that although most dropouts will eventually be persuaded to return to school, half of them could still walk away if they don’t receive additional support.

Visiting school dropouts in the border province of Ratchaburi, Sompong said he could see the pain in the eyes of children who had to leave school.

“While they are happy to be back in class, they are also worried about what will happen next because they know their family’s financial situation,” he said.

Sompong believes May will be a crucial month in many children’s lives as they find out if their parents can afford to send them back to school after two years of COVID-19.

“What the government does this month will also shape the educational future of children,” he said.

Suriyadeo, who is also the director of the Moral Center (Public Organization) Thailand, said categorizing students will make it easier to target groups that need help.

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How much does education cost?

Even though the state offers 12 years of free education, parents still have to pay large sums to get their children properly educated.

A National Statistics Office survey showed that it costs an average of 17,832 baht per year to educate children up to the age of 15. In Bangkok, it costs an even higher sum of 37,257 baht. School uniforms for a student based in Bangkok cost an average of 2,057 baht per year only.

Suriyadeo said the mandatory uniform rule should be scrapped so poor parents don’t have to borrow money to dress their children for school.

“I also think schools should relax the rules on hairstyles and more,” he added.

What is happening in universities?

Sompong said universities have been slow to return to normal, despite knowing that online learning cuts academic quality by a third.

Wilaiwan Jongwilaikasaem, who teaches at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication, said online learning robs students of interaction with others and opportunities to familiarize themselves with tools.

“Students end up lacking in confidence, especially new graduates,” she said.

However, the COVID-19 crisis has had a positive impact, she added. For example, some filmmakers have started offering online courses and forums, making their knowledge more accessible than ever.

“Young people have also become more active in protecting their rights and developing better survival skills,” she said.

By General Office of Thai PBS World

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