Disparities, COVID-19, and School Closures
Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee
A performance index for a country’s COVID-19 management may not only be the numbers of infections and deaths but also the number of days schools are open or closed. Reputedly, schools should be the last places to be closed; in fact, shutting down schools should only be a last resort because schools are fundamental institutions in society producing future quality citizens. This article explores how primary and secondary schools in several countries adjusted themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic and how Thailand can apply these lessons to minimise the impact of the lost learning time on Thai students.
Arguably, if 31 December 2019 was counted as day zero of the then not-yet-named epidemic originating in China’s city of Wuhan, it would have been nearly two years for the world to deal with several COVID-19 variants: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Lambda Mu, and the newly emerged Omicron variant. Thailand recorded its first locally acquired COVID-19 case on 31 January 2020. Subsequently, on 26 March 2020, the country invoked the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations, which so far has been extended until 31 January 2022. On 18 March 2020, the Cabinet resolved to postpone the reopening of all schools from mid-May to 1 July 2020. Since then on, several schools in Thailand have still not fully resumed face-to-face classes.
On 18 March 2020, the Cabinet resolved to postpone the reopening of all schools from mid-May to 1 July 2020. Since then on, several schools in Thailand have still not fully resumed face-to-face classes.
The “lockdown generation”
Thailand has not gone through this challenge alone. Most countries across all continents also shut down schools, and even several wealthy countries closed schools to reduce the risk of infection. Countries’ school closing measures can be grouped into two approaches: 1) Shutting down schools nationwide as a precaution, and 2) Leaving schools open if there was no outbreak in the community. According to a data analysis by UNICEF, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Panama are the three countries that kept schools closed the longest over the past 18 months. In Finland, the government declared a state of emergency and closed all schools nationwide for only three days since WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020. In the United Kingdom, 44 per cent of primary schools halted their classes sometime during the pandemic. Another 21 per cent were not open fully, while the other 35 per cent remained open, as advised by the government. France was among the first countries to close schools since March 2020, but President Emmanuel Macron afterwards announced a policy to keep schools as open as possible, resulting in France being one of the Western European nations with the highest number of days schools remained open, possibly after Switzerland, Iceland, and Sweden. In Germany, despite Federal Minister of Education and Research Anja Karliczek’s decision to not shut down schools but to continue with face-to-face classes as usual, schools in some areas had inevitably to be closed in 2020. Interestingly, in many European countries, a decision to close or open schools does not entirely depend on the central government, but rather the local government and the school itself, without politicians’ intervention. In addition, the negotiating power of the teachers’ unions, whose priority was the safety of education staff, played a part in the conclusion of a decision. Therefore, in spite of the central government’s policy of maintaining face-to-face learning, several schools came under intense pressure from the teachers’ unions and, thus, opted to close as a safety precaution.
Australia and New Zealand, the sister nations in the Pacific Ocean, had different approaches to school closures. In 2020, schools in almost all Australian states and territories were rarely closed, in line with the uniform practice of keeping schools open as usual. The decision was perhaps made by also factoring in the previous year’s results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which showed that Australian students’ performance was declining compared to other OECD countries - a circumstance which school closures could have otherwise exacerbated. Also, because the Commonwealth of Australia comprises several states and territories, the authority to shut down schools rests with each state government. For example, Victoria and New South Wales had longer school closures than other states. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern employed rigorous measures of closing the borders and schools despite few infections. From its experience, New Zealand suffered little when schools were closed following the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes; its high school students performed well because teachers made lessons more concise and focused on what had to be learned.
Research Confirmed School Closing Did Not Significantly Stop the Spread of the Virus
Sweden kept schools open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and left it up to individual schools’ consideration whether to close or open. Sweden’s approach to closing few schools was particularly interesting. When needed, the country closed senior high schools but kept junior high schools open to assess the impact of school closures and to gather evidence whether closing schools could minimise the spread of the coronavirus, and if so, to what degree. In its finding, keeping schools open resulted in slightly higher infections among parents but more than double infections among teachers and their partners. In spite of this, Sweden concluded that the benefit of closing schools was minimal and did not outweigh its detrimental impact upon the education system and students. Therefore, the country continued to keep schools open as much as it could and used preventive measures to ensure that teachers and school staff would be safe. Findings from research in Japan and the United States also confirmed the same results.
After two years, most countries seemed to discern the fact that keeping schools open was not a contributor to outbreaks growing. Several countries, e.g. Singapore, Indonesia, Ireland, and the United States, began vaccinating children younger than 12 as a concurrent measure.
Lost Childhood and Learning Time
According to the United Nations, school closures, for which online learning had been substituted, have affected over 1.6 billion children in 190 countries, or 98% of the world’s children population. The lack of classroom interactions with teachers and classmates not only hindered students’ literacy and numeracy skills, but also their physical and emotional health. Many countries found that long school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic induced stress in children, some of whom subsequently developed a depressive disorder because of an unsuitable learning environment at home, an inability to adjust themselves, or a lack of equipment for online learning. For young poor children in many countries, including Thailand, going to school means access to school provision of food, snacks, and milk. Closing schools jeopardised these vulnerable children’s health, caused them to suffer malnutrition, and increased the risks of them being subject to forced labour, abuses, or, in some cases, forced marriage.
Widening Disparities When Schools Taught Online
All countries unanimously agreed that the effectiveness of remote learning is inferior to face-to-face learning, except for when students are equipped with necessary tools and can adjust to independent learning. Remote learning’s lower effectiveness than face-to-face learning is mainly because of two following reasons:
All countries unanimously agreed that the effectiveness of online learning is inferior to face-to-face learning, except for when students are fully equipped with necessary tools and can adjust themselves to independent learning.
Disparities among learners in their access to and familiarity with technological tools: Such disparities were not common to poor countries only. Australia, South Korea, and the United States also found the shockingly enormous gap between average students and their peers from low socio-economic backgrounds, with the largest disparities between private and public schools. It was found that most private school students were familiar with doing schoolwork and homework on computers regularly. In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander public school students were four times as likely as non-Indigenous students to have no internet access at home.
Teachers’ inadequate digital competencies: The lack of adequate digital skills among teachers created as many problems as the lack of hardware and software tools among students. Had teachers never incorporated technology into teaching and learning prior to COVID-19, they would have faced a tremendous challenge within a pressing time frame. Teachers’ inadequate skills, therefore, are significant obstacles to remote teaching in any country.
The Most Vulnerable Groups Are the Most Affected
A 2020 survey by the National Statistical Office of Thailand showed that nearly half of families in Thailand were not ready for their children’s online learning. Of these families, 51 per cent did not have a computer, laptop, or tablet at home. 26 percent of them did not have internet access at home, and 40 per cent of them were concerned that they would not have time to constantly support their children in remote learning.
Nearly half of families in Thailand were not ready for their children’s online learning. Of these families, 51 per cent did not have a computer, laptop, or tablet at home. 26 percent of them did not have internet access at home, and 40 per cent of them were concerned that they would not have time to constantly support their children in remote learning.
Thailand’s Equitable Education Fund (EEF) revealed that, in its August 2021 follow-up on 294,454 extremely destitute students, there were 43,060 students (14.6 per cent) who had not yet resumed their studies. Of these not-yet-returning students, there were 33,710 ninth graders and 8,699 sixth graders. By the organisation’s definition, extremely destitute students are those who were so categorised in a screening or those from a family with an average income of 1,200 baht/person/month. In 2020, Thailand had 1.8 million extremely destitute students, and this number later rose to 1.9 million in semester 1/2021. In more tragic circumstances, children became orphaned by losing both parents or guardians to COVID-19. Many Thai students were, thus, predicted to be out of the education system in the foreseeable future, an issue no longer common in developed countries.
A survey in fiscal year 2021 showed worrying facts about underprivileged students in Thailand. In 23,864 Thai public schools under the reporting line of the Office of the Basic Education Commission (OBEC), there were 357,021 students in grades one to six who failed standard assessments, meaning that they are illiterate. Underprivileged students often could not catch up with their peers and were languishing in the bottom of each year’s student ranking. Such a learning gap would hamper these children’s future job opportunities and income. Research indicated that about 18 per cent of Thai youth did not even own a book. Poor children in rural areas, especially in the Northeast, had low expectations for their future and significantly foresaw themselves with fewer opportunities and possibilities for a promising future than better-off and metropolitan students.
Positive Attitudes towards Education More Important Than Technology
Providing students with access to technological tools may not be as crucial as inculcating an attitude of perseverance. With a positive attitude towards education, students would nourish their continued desire to learn while their schools are closed and would be self-driven towards their learning goals. Parents and teachers can instill such a positive attitude in students through support and attentiveness. However, parents who struggle to make ends meet, living from hand to mouth may have less time to tend to their children than those who are already well-off, well-educated, and have useful connections. It is a striking reality that traps people in a vicious circle of social disparities. School teachers, therefore, shoulder the burden of minimising the gap between families from different socio-economic statuses to remedy the disparities. Shutting down schools placed the burden of educating children on parents, and many of them were not ready to cope. This finding indicates why closing schools should be a last resort.
Parents who struggle to make ends meet, living from hand to mouth may have less time to tend to their children than those who are already well-off, well-educated, and have useful connections. It is a striking reality that traps people in a vicious circle of social disparities.
Let’s Look Ahead and Plan the Way Forward
All countries, regardless of their economic status, are facing a digital divide. The United Kingdom, Germany, the United States, and Australia all have students who lack technological tools. However, countries with strong financial resources can assist schools, teachers, and students in various forms more quickly and thoroughly. Examples of their help included loaning laptops and digital tools to students, providing free internet access, creating user manuals for parents to help their children with learning tools, and mobilising resources to improve teachers’ skills to enhance the quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning.
Thailand’s relief came as a 2,000-baht payout per head to around 11 million students under the Ministry of Education from kindergarten up to grade 12 and vocational education levels, costing over 23 billion baht in budget. The government also put other measures in place to lessen the burden of parents. However, these payouts and measures failed to address the root cause of the unfulfilled learning and truncated teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the government should have cascaded its educational assistance down “in layers”; that is, to use a tailored approach to help each group of students based on their circumstances, with a priority given to the highly vulnerable groups, ensuring that they will not be languishing at the bottom end or left to their eventual fate.
The government should have cascaded its educational assistance down “in layers”; that is, to use a tailored approach to help each group of students based on their circumstances, with a priority given to the highly vulnerable groups, ensuring that they will not be languishing at the bottom end or left to their eventual fate.
What is even more important is long-term readiness. It can be achieved by raising teachers’ and education staff’s awareness of building inspiration and positive attitudes towards learning in students and by building their skills in using digital tools to create meaningful learning processes. To facilitate teachers to achieve these goals, unnecessary duties outside teaching, e.g. working towards a higher accreditation and creating needless reports, must be reduced.
The most important thing is to keep school closures as a last resort. The measure is not worth doing at the expense of the future of Thai students who have already lost far too much learning time.
This article is part of the Comparative Assessment of the Pandemic Responses in Australia and Thailand, supported by the Australia-ASEAN Council under Australia-ASEAN Council COVID-19 Special Grants Round, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
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