Safely back to school
After two months of school closures for COVID-19 response, children in Lao PDR are returning to schools in the ‘new normal’ setting.
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18-year-old Ketsavan Chaleunsouk, a student of grade 12, the last grade for upper secondary, is excited to see her friends again after a long unexpected break. Just like before, she puts on her school uniform that now has an additional item-a mask, and returns to her school, Lycée de Vientiane, a public school in Lao PDR’s capital Vientiane.
On May 18, her school welcomed over 900 students from grade 9, 10 and 12 after a two-month-long hiatus. The schools all over country were closed as part of government’s response to contain the spread of COVID-19. With no new cases reported in over a month, the Ministry of Education and Sports issued Safe School Guidance and decided to reopen the schools in two phases. 18 May for a few classes and all children to be back on 2 June.
“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,” says the 18-year-old.
To ensure children continue learning, the school had started a YouTube channel. Ketsavan and other students were following that to study.
“Despite the dangers of Coronavirus, I am confident that my school is safe because they are doing everything to keep us safe by implementing these new rules,” says Ketsavan.
On her first day, she was surprised to see that the rules in her school had changed. This was the impact of the new safe school guidelines.
First, she had to maintain 1-meter distance between her friends and stand in the queue at the entrance for temperature check. After that, they had to wash their hands and use hand sanitizers in front of their classrooms.
Not just the students, but the teachers also share the same joy of school resumption.
"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,” says Mr. Viengchit Sinthamvongsa, the Health and Population teacher of senior school.
In Lao PDR, many schools were used as a quarantine station for people returning from neighbouring countries. As per the safe school guidance, the schools were disinfected and cleaned extensively.
“Although our school was not used as a quarantine place during the lockdowns, we are not making any compromises in our safety,” says Mr. Viengchit. “A week before the reopening, we sprayed disinfectant in classrooms and other places. Likewise, we have allocated 30 minutes in the morning for temperature checking and those with fever will be sent home for rest,” he further stated.
At school, Ketsavan catches up with her friends. They share their experiences of lockdown. One of her classmates is Leewa Wang. Leewa belongs to a Hmong community from a remote village in northern part of the country. After the schools were closed, he returned to his village.
“At my village, I did not get enough time to study. I was helping my family in the farm all day,” Leewa shares his experience. “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.”
To his relief, the classes now have been resumed and the exams are set to take place at the end of July. Both teachers and students are confident that they have enough time to cover the time lost and prepare for the examination.
“We were conducting online classes to make sure students were not deprived of education,” says Ms Phaivone Silivay, Grade 10 Physics teacher. She was also checking in on their mental and emotional state during the lockdown. “I am glad to see that all of them are in good spirits and I am confident we will finish our curriculum and be ready to appear for the exams soon.”
The only challenge she thinks they might encounter with the new guidelines is to promote social distancing in big school like theirs with a total capacity of 3,000 people. But she promises that all teacher will try their best.
UNICEF and development partners have been supporting the Ministry of Education and Sports, and the Ministry of Health to respond to the pandemic since day one in Lao PDR. UNICEF has been supporting the Lao PDR by providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to health workers, promoting hygiene practices, training journalists on COVID-19 and disseminating information through traditional and digital media. UNICEF also supported the Ministry of Education develop an Education COVID-19 response plan. Most recently, UNICEF has supported the back to school campaign, which includes messaging through INGO networks and teachers’ groups, distributing posters to all schools in Lao, and using digital and traditional media to share more information for parents, teachers and students.
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.