Children and teachers in migrant learning centres face challenges due to COVID-19
The challenges of ensuring education for migrant children are complex
The challenges of ensuring education for migrant children are complex. They are closely interlinked with identity documentation, health, community, labour and security issues. The interlinked challenges are more visible during this global pandemic. While children in public schools have been back in the classroom since 1st July, migrant children who went home and were not able to return before border closure would miss their class and face the additional struggle to catch up when they return.
The most impacted however are migrant children who attend migrant learning centres (MLCs), as they are still learning from home in their communities until the migrant education coordination centre (MECC) and coordinators of MLCs mutually agree on reopening, which is expected to be in October.
According to 2019 Migrant Working Group data, about 19,410 migrant children are enrolled in MLCs in Thailand. Tak is one of the country’s primary provinces in which migrant children live. The province has the greatest number of MLCs, with around 12,000 children enrolled.
MLCs are able to only partially reopen under strict regulations, as the MECC and coordinators of MLCs are uncertain about how the situation will develop. Still, all 44 regulations for school evaluation in alignment with the Department of Health’s criteria must be met. Some of these include body temperature screenings for students, teachers and visitors, provision of face masks for students and seating arrangements of at least 1-2 metres in classrooms, canteens and resting areas. Implementing all the necessary regulations for school evaluation is a tough process, as many MLCs still lack essential supplies or the financial support to procure them.
The prolonged closures of MLCs are now impacting children in terms of learning and daily routines. Research has shown that prolonged school closures can cause students to regress academically, lose track of their routines and face a greater risk of exposure to violence and exploitation.
UNICEF observed learning in a Myanmar migrant community a few miles from the Mae Sot district with Kyae Htae, a Myanmar staff member of the Help without Frontiers Thailand Foundation. Kyae Htae said that New Day school shifted to home-based learning by teaching children within their communities. However, the centre is now understaffed as many Myanmar teachers returned to their home country and are not allowed to travel back to Thailand. The few teachers that remain in the country are now responsible for the education of many students. Also, travelling to communities requires daily transportation but the centre has only a few vehicles to support the teachers. For example, the three teachers who taught in the community that afternoon had to travel on the same motorcycle.
In the middle of the community area, there was an outdoor classroom under a large tree where six migrant children were studying under the supervision of three teachers. “This afternoon, the children get to learn drawing, basic Mathematics and plant growing,” Kyae Htae noted.
Registered and certified with the MECC and Tak Primary Education Service Area Office 2 in 2006, New Day school has 300 students enrolled in 12 grades.
Speaking of current challenges, Daw Yuzana, Director of New Day school, said that to be able to reopen the centre, all 44 regulations need to be met. One of the main obstacles is limited space. As New Day school has a large number of students, arranging learning spaces according to physical distancing measures is difficult. Likewise, preparing a school bus schedule to meet physical distancing measures is challenging, too.
Reflecting on why she had established the school, Yuzana said: “My previous work was to promote knowledge and information about the rights of migrant workers. One day, I went to observe a steel factory and saw many children around the factory. They were hiding from the sight of the monitoring staff and under no one’s care during the day. That inspired me to establish a learning centre to provide care for those children and name it ‘New Day’ to signify the beginning of a new future.”
On the current circumstances that have delayed the reopening of her school, Yuzana said: “Actually, moving the opening of classrooms for MLCs until at least October benefits children in terms of COVID-19 prevention. A large number of the centre’s Myanmar teachers returned home before lockdown measures were put in place in Thailand. The remaining teachers have to support each other by covering their classes. In addition, older children have to learn in the same area with the younger children due to limited space in most of the communities that we travel to. The teachers are trying their best to manage the classrooms.”
Travelling to teach children in many communities had teachers worried about their safety at first. Yuzana then realized that effective protection begins with the teachers themselves. “New Day school advises that all teachers and staff keep themselves up to date on the situation and informed about disease prevention at all times. We also have been encouraging teachers to attend the COVID-19-related workshops. When they have sufficient knowledge, they can pass on the correct information to the communities. As a result, safety will be better ensured on both sides.”
Having participated in a UNICEF and USAID-supported workshop on COVID-19 prevention, Han Ni Kyaw, a teacher at New Day school, confidently shared with us, “I’ve found the workshop very beneficial for all participants as we received complete and essential information. The important thing that I learned is not to panic. Being worried or terrified doesn’t solve anything. After the workshop, I shared the correct information and lessons learned with other teachers. I also promoted the information about the COVID-19 pandemic and protection among children and families in the communities.”
UNICEF and USAID supported the Help without Frontiers Thailand Foundation in organizing three such workshops in June and July with its partners Mae Tao Clinic, MECC, Burmese Migrant Teachers’ Association, TeacherFOCUS and PlayOnSide. The workshops aimed to help keep teachers, students and communities safe. Vital information was delivered to 361 teachers from 56 MLCs in Tak province and covered COVID-19, children’s mental health, planning for home-based learning and Psychological First Aid.
UNICEF also distributed essential supplies, such as face masks, bars of soap, hand sanitizers, rice and dried food products, to families to ease the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children. Essential supplies are crucial for New Day school and other MLCs to prevent infection and prepare for reopening.
Han Ni Kyaw said, “We usually bring the donated bars of soap with us when we travel to teach. A bar of soap is put at the hand-washing facility; teachers and children must wash hands before and after the class. If any communities lack water or it’s difficult to find a hand-washing area, we use the alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Face masks are also given to teachers and children when they are studying. The additional support we need now is more hand sanitizers, bars of soap and face masks.”
While education may have been disrupted by the pandemic, migrant communities in Thailand are determined to not give up in defeat despite the many challenges ahead.