Going back to school in the new normal setting.
How UNICEF in Lao PDR ensured children’s safe return to school in the COVID-19 era.
As the Coronavirus pandemic swept across the world early this year, Lao PDR prepared to take strict measures to avoid the pandemic to go beyond control. In mid-March, the Government decided to ban public gatherings by closing schools and businesses that catered to a large mass. Soon the country went into total lockdown.
An estimated 1.4 million students were suddenly out of school, with no information on the resumption of classes. Some schools were turned into quarantine facilities for people returning from neighboring countries.
“We were at home for too long. This is my last year in school and I was worried that we will not be able to appear for state exams. I am so relieved to be back,” said the 18-year-old Ketsavan Chalensouk, student of grade 12, the last grade for upper secondary.
UNICEF leveraged its role as convener to ensure the solid coordination that a public health emergency requires;
- Strengthening preparedness through support to develop the Education COVID-19 Response Plan and promoting a coordinated response
- maximising the potential of interventions for implementation at scale
- mobilising partnerships in risk communication and community engagement as an integral part of the national back to school campaign.
- introducing innovative solutions, such as developing online monitoring tools and adapting UNICEF’s global Learning Passport initiative for online learning of students and teachers.
To give continuity to education, distance learning options were set up by using a blend of digital and non-digital platforms. This included supporting the Ministry set-up a dedicated educational TV channel and produce additional education programmes for TV. Capacity of Government’s remote learning TV channels were also enhanced with new technology and content production. However, children from remote and vulnerable communities still had little to no access to distance learning options. To address this, UNICEF is working with MoES to put in place additional measures to ensure children in remote areas could continue learning, including supporting the printing of learning materials.
With no new cases reported in over a month, the Government lifted the lockdown and decided to reopen the school between May and June in a staggered manner.
UNICEF worked closely with the Ministry of Education in planning the safe return of schoolchildren in classrooms by adopting the joint Safe Schools Guidance for ‘COVID-19 Prevention and Control in Schools’ and the ‘Framework for school reopening’.
“At my village, I did not get enough time to study. I was helping my family on the farm all day,” Leewa Wang shared his experience of lockdown. “To be honest, I was really scared due to the uncertainty inflicted by COVID. I was planning to apply for college scholarships. I thought I would lose everything.”
Within three weeks, UNICEF had to work closely with the Ministry of Education to ensure the schools are safe, and students, teachers, and parents were ready to go back to school.
As part of the preparation, the first task was to clean and disinfect the schools extensively, particularly the ones used as quarantine centres. Likewise, new rules had to be implemented such as encouraging masks compulsory, daily temperature checks, putting in place handwashing facilities, and social distancing measures. UNICEF handed over digital thermometers to schools in high-risk areas.
In the meantime, UNICEF also launched the #SafelyBackToSchool campaign targeting teachers, parents, and students through various platforms.
With long-distance travel still banned, UNICEF launched an online rapid survey endorsed by education authorities on 1 May to understand the perception of stakeholders such as teachers, parents, and students. Listening to these stakeholders illuminated concerns about going back to school and informed the joint efforts of the Ministry of Education and Sports and the Ministry of Health in the development of clear guidelines, instructions, and communications materials tailored to the safe return.
A month-long social media campaign was launched to disseminate information on ways to stay protected and keep others safe too. The online reach through social media grew, giving opportunities for children themselves to encourage learning, for example, through 'read aloud' activities but also key messages on returning to schools. So far, the campaign reached 4.6 million people via UNICEF online platforms, including 1.2 million views of the videos since its launch on 22 April 2020.
Similarly, a Whatsapp group was set up to send daily tailored messages to teachers across the country.
UNICEF, in partnership with the Government, also organized a half-day long media orientation to inform media about the safety measures in place and garner their support to amplify messages.
Addressing the Media Briefing, Mr. Savankhone Razmountry, Deputy Minister of Information, Culture, and Tourism highlighted the role of mass media in providing awareness of COVID-19 as well as updates on the global and local situation and the government instructions.
“Through all media outlets, we also provide information on how people should protect themselves and their families from Covid19.”
UNICEF developed public service announcements (PSA) targeting students, parents, teachers, and schools in Lao and other ethnic languages to disseminate over the TV and radio. Video produced also included sign language. Likewise, village loudspeakers were also used to ensure messages are shared with even those without access to media. These key messages were complemented with practical tools, such as the provision of posters to all public primary schools.
Partnership and coordination
COVID-19 is unlike any other emergency, UNICEF Laos office had dealt with in the past. The impact of the pandemic was not limited to a single sector, population group, or geographical area. Combating this required greater coordination including across and within key social sectors such as health and education. During the school closures, the strong partnership between the Government and various development partners including INGOs, which was formed since day one, ensured continuation of learning. This resulted in the birth of Lao Education TV and a dedicated webpage on the UNICEF Laos website.
Likewise, for the national Back to school campaign, UNICEF Lao PDR also mobilised the support of key partners, such as the European Union (EU), USAID, DFAT/BEQUAL, UNESCO, WFP, ChildFund Laos and Save the Children, to help spread the key messages.
UNICEF also received US$7 million in funding from the Global Partnership for Education to support the COVID-19 education response in Lao PDR.
"It is so nice to have my students back in the classroom. During the lockdown, we were checking in on our students regularly. Luckily all of them and their families were safe,” said Mr. Viengchit Sinthamvongsa, the Health and Population teacher of senior school.
By 2 June, all schools – around 14,000 safely welcomed children back to school. Everyone stepped up to catch up on the classes lost due to lockdown and the final examinations were successfully conducted from late July to August. The schools are currently closed for summer vacation and plans are already in place for the school new year.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has put education in the spotlight. But, in Lao PDR, we believe that we have a unique opportunity to jointly make sure that the education sector recovers, rebounds and re-imagine a better education for every Lao child,” said Dr. Pia Britto, UNICEF Representative. “The pandemic might just be a catalyst for turning classrooms and schools into the engaging, creative and intellectually enriching places we imagine they can be,” she added.
The good practices and lessons from this campaign are currently being used to design Phase II of the Safely back to school campaign for the new school year 2020-21.