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17 February 2022
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A practical guide to reopening schools

The closure of schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic has severely affected millions of students countrywide, causing them to miss many on-site classes over the past two years. A number of research works point to the adverse impact of long-time school closures on children, in terms of learning, mental health, and lost opportunities. A team of researchers led by Suchart Kilenthong of the Thai Chamber of Commerce University found that closing schools takes a heavy toll on kindergarteners, for example. Each missed day of school means they lose 98% of that day’s learning. This means that home schooling in Thailand cannot compete with going to school.

Teenagers are another hard-hit group. A survey by the Mental Health Department conducted on 190,000 people under 20 years of age from the start of the outbreak until September 2021 found that 28% experienced high stress, 32% had a tendency to develop depression, and 22% considered committing suicide.

Apart from the losses to individual students, closing schools has a serious impact on the country as a whole. Due to their regressive skills, the current cohort of students will earn less income throughout their lives, compared to those who studied before them. Moreover, there should be concerns regarding economic losses. Some forecasts project that, as a result of the school closures experienced in the first half of 2020, Thailand will see 1.5% lower annual GDP on average until the year 2100. And the longer they stay closed, the greater the loss.

Even though most schools have arranged other forms of learning, such as classes held online or even broadcast on television, during this period, they still face a number of obstacles. A survey conducted by the Education Ministry last year on 12,801 institutes yielded some worrying results. Some 80% of schools reported that underprivileged students had no access to online learning due to a lack of devices or internet access, while their home environment was in many cases also not supportive of such learning; 79% said parents had no time to help their children with their studies at home; and 62% admitted the quality of learning failed to hit their targets.

So closing schools comes with a cost, and offers a questionable health benefit given that most infected children tend to show few if any symptoms, and the fatality rate is as low as 1.9 per million. For children aged 12-17, the risk is reduced even further as the comparable rate for that demographic is 1.9 out of every 3 million students. In addition to this, the US Centers for Disease Control has said there is no evidence that reopening schools would lead to a community outbreak. Group transmission can be limited if schools apply the proper protective measures.

This should, in fact, become the new normal. The Education Ministry actually planned to reopen Thailand’s schools last October, but a survey the following month showed that while 97% of them had claimed they were ready for on-site learning, only half were able to follow through on this. This is because the current regulations make it easy to close a school, but difficult to reopen it.

A study on the conditions set by the Education Ministry, as well as interviews with a group of school administrators, found that several of these conditions are overly complicated and not at all practical.

For example, schools must provide sufficient social distancing and school passes for students, as well as their ATK test results and vaccination history. Meanwhile, the ministry’s demand for for “sealed routes”, with schools overseeing students’ travel from home to school and vice versa, regardless of whether they use private vehicles, school vans and public buses, is next to impossible to carry out.

Other measures demand that schools take responsibility for things outside of their control, for example the requirement that they ensure any adjacent businesses comply with the Thai Stop Covid Plus (TSC+) or provide a Covid-free setting. On top of this, other mandates ramp up their costs, such as the requirement that some or all students provide ATK test results on a weekly basis. One survey found that 56% of schools have no budget for ATK tests, and unless they can find a sponsor, they may have to transfer this cost to parents, which can result in fewer students from low-income families going to school.

Even more troublesome, such measures add to the burden of teachers, who are already struggling to conduct classes in such difficult conditions.

On another note, we can see the reopening of schools is being hindered in some cases by the provincial disease control panel or related authority being overly cautious.

In principle, the Education Ministry allows officials from these provincial bodies to map out preventive measures for schools and exercise their judgement on whether on-site studies can resume. In practice, however, some authorities overreact rather than conforming to the ministry’s instruction. As a result, they issue blanket orders for schools to close even though only a few infections have been detected. Many seem to think it is safer to keep schools closed and avoid risk being punished in the event of another outbreak.

One interview with school administrators in Chiang Mai suggests that authorities there are making the situation even harder by going beyond the ministry’s requirements, for example by requiring that 100% of faculty staff be fully vaccinated rather than just 85%. This problem is then compounded by sluggish bureaucracy and red tape, thus causing further delays — an ironic situation given the ease with which restaurants and some other types of entertainment venues can resume operations.

Policy recommendation

The Office of Basic Education Commission (Obec) and the Public Health Ministry must review the requirements for school reopening and preventive measures, so that a balance is met. The requirements must not be so tough that no schools can reopen, or lenient enough to lead to an outbreak.

Covid-prevention measures must be rational and non-discriminatory, meaning that non-vaccinated students should not be prohibited from attending class. Any measures that are beyond the school’s control must be removed.

The Education and Health ministries have to support schools by providing enough test kits, which will reduce the burden on administrators and parents. Any decision to close a school must be made rationally, on a case-by-case basis. There cannot be any blanket orders in any areas.

We cannot have “zero risk” in the coronavirus era. Instead, risk management is the key. Policy-makers at all levels must let operational officers know they will not be punished for an outbreak in their jurisdiction if all preventive measures have been applied.

The surge of the Omicron variant makes us realise we will have to live with Covid-19 for a long time. Each day a school is closed may mitigate the risk of a short-term outbreak, but it will cause long-term damage to the country’s future. Our children must be able to learn to live with the virus safely, while avoiding the loss of learning.

Article by Nicha Pittayapongsakorn, Senior Researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute

First Published: Bangkok Post on 16 FEB 2022


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