Monday, September 28, 2020

Schools survived lockdown – but burden of reopening could be fatal for some

Jun 16. 2020
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By Achara Deboonme
Special to The Nation

“42” is the number worrying all schools in Thailand, as they scramble to complete the 42 arrangements they must make before they can reopen on July 1. 

The arrangements – which are listed in the self-assessment form for preventing the spread of Covid-19 – concern the cleanliness of classrooms, buildings and teaching materials; school policies; teachers; food preparers; and cleaners.

And while the Education Ministry has set July 1 as the reopening date, schools must have all 42 items in place and implemented two weeks beforehand. 

The first of the points on the list could spell disaster for many schools: they are required to measure all their outside space minus car parks, to make sure there is at least 10 square metres for each student and teacher. The ratio for classrooms is 5sqm per person. It’s likely that many schools will not be able to meet this requirement, particularly those located in big cities. 

This is the toughest among the requirements outlined under social distancing rules. Others include keeping at least 2 metres between students in classrooms and at least 1 metre at other locations, including temperature checkpoints, toilets, canteens, water stations, and waiting areas. Floor markings throughout schools will help enforce social distancing. 

Another tough point is the requirement for ample stocks of alcohol gel, alcohol spray, soaps and cleaning liquid. All students, teachers, parents and others must disinfect their hands every time they enter the school. And the entire premises must be cleaned frequently – every two hours for toilets and every hour in classrooms, including desks, chairs, toys, doorknobs and windows. Cleaners must be provided with boots and rubber gloves, as well as face masks. All food must be cooked and served hot. 

Meanwhile, the school’s management board must design a safety policy and ensure that everyone knows and follows it. Classes need to be rescheduled to match staggered lunchtimes, as there is no longer enough space to seat all students in the canteen at the same time.

The most important thing, however, is for all parents to acknowledge the safety policy and measures. They should monitor their children’s health daily and keep sick kids at home, or one child could spread the disease to friends, teachers and others, since face masks and frequent cleaning do not guarantee safety. 

Fulfilling all the requirements is a huge burden on both school finances and time. At a school with 400 students, 30 teachers, three kitchen staff and three cleaners, the process could be completed in a week – but at a cost of about Bt30,000 as well as many working hours. This excludes the money for stocks of alcohol gel, spray and cleaning liquids, whose consumption rate remains unknown. The investment may not sound so high, but it comes during lockdown, when private schools are generating no revenue yet having to bear a lot of expenses. As it is, many private schools struggle each term to find the finances necessary to keep operating. 

While public schools can switch budgets from non-urgent projects, private school owners must bear the costs by themselves. This is a huge burden given the long school break and zero opportunities to generate revenue during the three-and-a-half-month lockdown. It’s no surprise that the Private Education Commission has come up with special loans of up to Bt500,000 to relieve some of the pressure on private schools. Owners have been struggling ever since their schools were ordered to shut on March 18. Public schools were instructed to launch online studies on the same day, but many private schools had already done so a week earlier. They had also carried out a time-consuming survey of every individual student’s readiness for distance learning. Education experts were dismayed to find that many households were not ready for online learning, as they lacked devices, a stable Internet signal (particularly in rural areas), and time to monitor students – especially younger ones. LINE and Facebook were the most viable channels to deliver and receive back worksheets. But the most viable means of keeping contact with students during the enforced school break is home visits, despite the threat from Covid-19. That involves huge budget outlays for worksheets, fuel costs and teacher allowances. (The government has only just announced that these expenses can be covered by the 15-Year Free Education Scheme.)

Expenses aside, there are unusual arrangements that must be made. 

At the beginning of May, schools had to work with school milk providers to ensure that deliveries were switched to students’ homes, as authorities feared poor students would be deprived of this important nutrition for a long time. This was a headache since it remained unclear how many students would quit school as their parents’ income fell during the Covid-19 crisis. If the students who received the milk eventually withdrew from school, who would would bear the cost?

The school lunch programme could be another headache once schools reopen. Social distancing regulations mean classes may have to be split into two groups who will rotate attendance. Private schools with government lunch budgets must find a way to feed students at home. One proposal is to deliver lunch money to them – but this will involve receipts to record disbursement of government funds.

Complying with the 42-point list of preparations is a tough and costly task, and it adds to the burden of other rules concerning Covid-19. 

The 2019 academic year saw 66 private schools close. How many of the remaining 3,937 will be left by the end of the 2020 academic year? 

However, all schools, particularly private ones, are more than ready to comply with safety regulations if they are capable of doing so. The permission to reopen is the first crucial step in their struggle for survival after the long shutdown.

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