Millions of kids suffer ‘COVID slide’ as Thai education hit by new virus wave

A student passes through the inspection gate on the first day of the reopening of the International Pioneers School in Bangkok on June 16, 2020, following its temporary closure due to the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic. – Some schools in Thailand have reopened as they adopted preventive measures such as social distancing and regular disinfection to halt the spread of the virus. (Photo by Romeo GACAD / AFP)

The fresh wave of COVID-19 is threatening to plunge Thai students into a deeper “summer slide”, a recent report by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) suggests.

Summer slide usually refers to a loss of academic skills and knowledge over the course of summer vacation in countries that have lengthy breaks. But what is now happening to Thai students could be termed “COVID-19 slide”. Ever since the first wave of coronavirus hit Thailand early last year, students have done most of their learning online rather than in classrooms.

“Research shows that children away from schools for six weeks lose half an academic year in terms of knowledge,” explained Dr Poomsaran Thongliamnak, an education economist at the Equitable Education Research Institute (EEFI).

No end in sight for fresh wave

When the first wave of COVID-19 turned serious in Thailand last March, summer break had already begun. The Education Ministry therefore had to postpone the start of the new academic year from May 16 to July 1.

In May and June, schools were also instructed to experiment with online classes. Several schools created blended learning – a mix of both online and onsite classes for their students. Others integrated distance-learning TV (DLTV).

The report by Unesco indicates the first wave of COVID-19 caused “summer slide” in Thailand as school closures affected more than 15 million students. This is despite the fact that by last July, Thai students had returned to classrooms after the outbreak was quickly contained.

However, the situation has worsened lately. Just a few weeks after the second semester began in early December, the new wave of COVID-19 emerged.

The Education Ministry has now ordered all schools (except small schools) in 28 red-zone provinces, including Bangkok, to close and adopt online learning from January 4-31. Schools in other provinces can also do the same, depending on local authorities’ view about how serious COVID-19 situation develops in their areas. The school closure may last longer this time, given new infections are rising at a worrying rate.

“Learning-loss impacts will be felt again. This time, the impacts could be bigger as there is no end in sight for the second wave yet,” said Prof Dr Somphong Chittradub of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Education.

Concern among teachers

Suwan Taweephol, director of Benjamarachutit Chanthaburi School, said no matter how hard teachers tried, online classes could not deliver knowledge to students as effectively as conventional learning. Also, many students did not have good internet to support online learning, he pointed out.

The head of a school in the Northeast agreed, saying school closures definitely affected students’ learning. She remained worried this time, despite having dealt with the situation before.

“In the first semester, the COVID-19 situation was pretty much under control. So even though we conducted online classes, we also had some on-hand and onsite programmes. But in the current situation, we are not so sure about what we can really do,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

On-hand programmes refer to arrangements in which students or their parents turn up at schools to hand in assignments or pick up written feedback/learning materials.

A teacher at a small school in Prachuap Khiri Khan said students could not fully benefit from DLTV and could not always turn to their parents for help. “That’s why we had to arrange an on-site schedule too,” she said.

Romklao Changnoi, a maths teacher at Bangkok’s Mathayom Wat Dusitaram School, said online classes were far more exhausting because it was tougher to interact with students. For students, meanwhile, online classes often come with more assignments.

“There is a heated debate on whether online exams are effective,” said Romklao, adding he might use assignments to give scores for some subjects instead.

Renowned virologist Dr Yong Poovorawan added his voice to concerns about COVID-19’s impact on the country’s education. “Thai education is already lagging behind others. Closing schools will take a larger toll,” he said. “Yet, it is absolutely necessary to close schools in cities with widespread contagion.”

Learning loss and more

Poomsaran said it was clear online classes were not as effective as schoolroom classes. The problems, he said, generally worsen for children who lack access to equipment for the shift to online learning.

“When students spend time at home, they suffer learning loss. Some knowledge will just fade from their memories,” he said.

Worse still, Poomsaran said students who learn from home risk losing opportunities to develop basic but important human skills.

This education economist is also worried that some children – especially those from cash-strapped families and those with learning disabilities – will drift away from the education system after spending so much time at home.

Hope amid crisis

However, Poomsaran also said many teachers have created impressive content for online learning, while many schools had arranged offline support such as delivering textbooks, learning materials and advice to students.

Somphong recommended that great learning/teaching media should be compiled into a national digital platform to support both teachers and students.

Meanwhile Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan has declared that all schools are equipped with measures to deal with the COVID-19 situation, saying his ministry would ensure the virus does not disrupt the country’s education services.

“We have already been made familiar with online learning to an extent,” he said.

Somphong urged the Education Ministry to monitor problems facing students and provide solutions, as COVID-19 restrictions look set to be around for a long time.

“If possible, learn a few lessons from them too,” he said.

Somphong added the Education Ministry should be flexible in its evaluation of learning outcomes, and let schools and teachers have their say.

The ministry has already made Ordinary National Educational Tests (Onet) voluntary for Prathom 6 and Mathayom 3 students. So far, Onet remains mandatory for Mathayom 6 students, who will use their test scores for university admissions.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk


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