Tough test ahead as Thailand mulls reopening schools
The second semester for most Thai students will start on November 1. But whether their classes are held online or onsite will depend on what schools and parents say.
“We are not going to force students to return to school,” Education Minister Treenuch Thienthong said. “If parents are worried, students can study from home or opt for other learning modes.”
She also made clear that COVID-19 vaccination would be voluntary for students. In other words, authorities will only give Pfizer jabs to children whose parents are willing to have them vaccinated.
Pandemic disrupts learning
COVID-19 has disrupted students’ studies since early last year when it first began spreading. Serious outbreaks of the disease left schools unable to conduct normal classes. Millions of children were forced to switch to alternative learning methods, such as on-air (distance-learning TV), on-demand (internet applications), online (internet-based learning) and on-hand (submitting assignments).
Schools in most parts of Thailand, including Bangkok, have been closed for more than 10 months (41 weeks) since COVID-19 emerged, according to the United Nations education agency Unesco.
Parents of kids at a well-known Bangkok primary school have complained that online learning cannot compensate for school-based education. No matter how hard teachers try, they are finding it impossible to maintain kids’ attention for the duration of internet lessons. Meanwhile, children are spending more time on screens, which is depriving them of the life skills they learn from face-to-face interactions.
“Also, some parents cannot work from home,” one parent pointed out. “This means kids are studying at home alone or with their siblings.”
Educators also warn that at-home learning has significant impacts on children’s academic knowledge, development and health. Hence, they recommend urgent vaccination for students so schools can reopen.
Is Pfizer safe for youngsters?
The Education Ministry hopes to reopen state schools for the second semester on November 1 once older school students are vaccinated in October. Targeted for jabs are 4.5 million students aged 12 to 17. The brand chosen for the government’s free vaccination of kids is Pfizer, which has already been used for children and adults in several other countries, including the United States.
Thai parents were asked to sign a consent form between September 21 and 24. Children of parents who have consented will get shots from October 4 onward.
Pfizer vaccine is produced with new mRNA technology. While it delivers higher levels of immunity than most other brands, it comes with the tiny risk of a serious side effect. About 16 per 1 million vaccinated with Pfizer have developed inflammation of the heart. This side effect is most common among boys aged between 12 to 17, with early US data indicating an incidence of 60 cases per million jabs. However, a recent US study suggests getting infected with COVID-19 is six times more likely to trigger heart inflammation than getting a Pfizer jab.
How willing are the children?
Wisit Chaithaeng, director of Bodindecha (Sing Singhaseni) School and also head of the Secondary School Administrator Association of Thailand, said students at his school had studied vaccine information and wanted their jabs.
“Our survey shows 2 percent of our students have already had the jab because of underlying health conditions,” Wisit said. “The rest say they want to get jabbed.”
He said schools could only resume classes onsite once the student inoculation program rolls out. And he reckons parents will definitely give their consent if they are fully informed of the benefits of vaccination.
Though most children who contract COVID-19 do not suffer serious symptoms, the disease can still be dangerous for children.
Between April 1 and September 11, nearly 130,000 children aged between six to 18 came down with coronavirus infections in Thailand. Of these, 15 died. Most of the fatalities had had underlying health conditions.
One parent said his two kids were resigned to getting vaccinated, in the full knowledge that their parents and grandparents had already got their shots.
“And they get their flu shots annually,” he pointed out.
What do parents say?
Parent chat groups at several schools are now buzzing with debate on which vaccine choice is best for kids. While the government is offering free Pfizer shots for children, parents also have the option of seeking Sinopharm or Moderna vaccine for their offspring.
Speaking anonymously, a father of two suggested that each family cooperate with schools in studying information to plan their kids’ COVID-19 vaccination. The focus, he said, should be on safety, risk of side effects and efficacy.
In his view, existing information is not yet solid enough for parents to make a decision. However, if forced to decide now, he said he would choose an inactivated vaccine such as Sinopharm for his children because it is produced through a time-proven technique.
“My second choice would be an mRNA vaccine,” he said.
Pfizer and Moderna are made with the innovative mRNA technology. Moderna will soon be available to paying vaccinees in Thailand.
The Royal College of Pediatricians of Thailand has recommended the mRNA vaccine for children aged 12 years up. The Food and Drug Administration has already approved the use of both Pfizer and Moderna for older kids. The FDA has not yet cleared Sinopharm for youngsters, but Chulabhorn Royal Academy is currently trialing the inactivated vaccine in children under a research project.
What happens when schools reopen?
Parents insist schools should ensure that teaching staff, janitors and school bus drivers get fully inoculated before reopening. Schools should also have response plans in place that include regular testing with antigen test kits (ATKs).
Education Ministry permanent secretary Supat Champathong said the authorities are preparing stringent measures to ensure students are safe when they return to school. Wearing masks, frequent washing of hands, social distancing and eating only cooked food will be mandatory.
“We have already implemented these measures at several boarding schools participating in the Sandbox Safety Zone in School [SSS] initiative,” he said.
However, so far only 10 schools in Bangkok have expressed interest in joining the SSS scheme, said the Office of the Private Education Commission. The lukewarm response stems mainly from uncertainty about the COVID-19 situation, parents’ unwillingness to send children back to schools, and the expenses involved.
“For example, if random ATK tests must be conducted regularly, testing fees will cost Bt8,000 per semester per student,” the office’s secretary-general Attapon Truektrong said.
By Thai PBS World’s General Desk