Reopened Thai schools face biggest test as COVID fear stalks classrooms

Of the 12,000 or so Thai schools that resumed onsite learning in November, 71 per cent have successfully ensured that students can sit in class and study with their friends at least half of the time. These statistics offer hope, but prospects of a return to normal education were hit by the sudden temporary closure of several schools in recent weeks.

Schools where students test positive for highly-contagious COVID-19 respond by closing temporarily to minimize the risk of an outbreak. So far, schools have closed in Bangkok, Nakhon Ratchasima, Lampang, Roi Et and several other provinces after detecting COVID-19 infection.

If you add the Omicron variant to the scene, schools will find it even more difficult to reopen,” predicts prominent educator Prof Dr Sompong Jitradub, a former lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Education.

In fact, most Thai schools have not yet resumed onsite classes despite getting the green light from the Education Ministry. So far, only about a third of schools nationwide have reopened their doors. The rest are sticking to online learning out of concern over COVID-19.

Reopened only to close again

Suwannaramwittayakom School is among many that had to close soon after reopening. Onsite learning resumed here on November 8, but nine days later a positive test saw the school close again for seven days.

We wanted to get students back to class, especially Mathayom 1 students who had never been to school. But despite strict disease-control measures, we ended up with a COVID-19 case,” said school director Suriyan Laomaluek.

The case was a young Mathayom 1 student who had just arrived for her first-ever day at school. That evening, her parents called the school to say one of the family members had tested positive and the child would also be tested. Her result came back positive.

I didn’t want to put other students and teachers at risk, so I suspended onsite classes for seven days,” Suriyan said. His school has 1,143 students and 85 teachers.

Emergency closures have also been reported at Nakhon Ratchasima’s Sukhanaree School, Assumption Lampang College, and more.

Back online

While several COVID-hit schools took the chance and resumed online classes, others decided to switch back completely to online learning.

In Phitsanulok province, Janokrong School launched a hybrid of onsite and online learning on November 15 with a plan to get all students back in the classroom from December 27. But that plan was shelved when the province’s infection rate rose to 60-80 cases per day. As a result, all school classes will be online from December 7.

Elsewhere, the director of a Khon Kaen school said that even though online classes imposed extra burdens on children and their parents, she had decided against reopening classrooms. Khon Kaen has seen more than 100 new COVID-19 cases per day over the past month.

If the number of daily cases falls below 100, my school will resume onsite learning,” said the principal.

What do authorities say?

Dr Sumanee Wacharasint, the Department of Disease Control (DDC)’s communications director and spokesperson of the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration, recently admitted that infections in schools are being reported quite frequently.

However, DDC director-general Dr Opart Karnkawinpong has played down concerns by pointing out that schools – unlike gambling dens, factories and entertainment venues – have never been associated with a significant outbreak.

It should also be noted that vaccinated children do not develop severe COVID-19 symptoms like infected adults often do,” he said. “It’s just that parents must understand that if their child develops symptoms, he or she should immediately stop going to school.”

Student vaccination in Thailand

The government has offered Pfizer jabs to students aged 12 to 18 in recent months, in line with the Education Ministry’s plan to get students back to school.

Thailand has about 5 million students above the age of 12, according to Education Ministry permanent secretary Supat Champathong. Just over 4 million of these students have expressed willingness to be vaccinated, and more than 90 per cent (3.81 million) have had their first jab. Meanwhile, 57.84 per cent have received their second shot.

While vaccination may not prevent breakthrough infections, it significantly reduces the risk of severe symptoms and death. However, some parents are not permitting their children to get a shot over concerns about the vaccine’s extremely rare side effects.

What do students want?

Education Minister Treenuch Thienthong said more than 94 per cent of students wanted to return to school because they miss the fun and happiness. These students also said they understand their lessons better in classrooms, said Treenuch, citing results of a rapid appraisal conducted by her ministry.

Parents would also prefer their children to go back to school because they believe this will help the kids absorb more. However, many also worry about the extra costs of facemasks, alcohol gel and other protective items for kids who return to classrooms.

More than 93 per cent of teachers also prefer teaching in school, where students get hands-on practice and make the most of their curriculum.

However, Treenuch said her ministry cannot force schools to reopen. “It depends on the COVID-19 situation in each area,” she said.

Advice from an expert

Prof Sompong said the minister must address the drop in education quality and student dropouts during the pandemic. Statistics show that more than 66,000 students had quit lessons in the second semester of this 2021 academic year.

The education academic also suggested that vaccinated students be allowed to attend classes in school for a few days a week, with authorities adopting action plans to respond in case of an outbreak.

Sompong added that state schools should develop an effective digital platform for students because nobody knows how many more waves of COVID-19 will be triggered and how long they will continue.

Private schools are already making moves on this front,” he said.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk


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