BANGKOK - Thailand is preparing to launch a nationwide distance learning programme when the new academic semester - postponed from May 18 because of the Covid 19 pandemic - kicks off on July 1.
Schools in areas deemed safe will be able to open from that date with social distancing rules applied, but those in areas deemed to be at risk of infections will have to rely on distance learning, mainly through pre-taped lessons broadcast on television, with a complementary online platform.
"On-site learning is our priority but when that is not possible, we will have to use the on-air approach," Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan told The Straits Times in an interview earlier this week.
He said officials had taken the worst case scenario into account when they decided on postponing the new semester to July 1, adding that this was to ensure that all parties involved would be ready.
There are 17 television channels under the nationwide distance learning programme, each devoted to a specific standard - from kindergarten to high school. Two other separate channels are reserved for vocational programmes.
Most of the channels, or 15 of them, have been up and running for years.
"The resources and content are already there," said Mr Nataphol.
"We are confident that up to 90 per cent of households nationwide have televisions, so it is a more appropriate avenue for distance learning. We are a developing country where not all the students have smartphones, tablets or laptops so online learning is only complementary," said Mr Nataphol.
For those in kindergarten and junior high school, distance learning will comprise lessons by teachers of a school in the resort town of Hua Hin each day. Lessons will be repeated later in the day for those who miss them in the morning.
Local school teachers will make their rounds once a week checking in on their students at their houses as well as assign and pick up homework.
As for senior high school students aged between 15 and 18, learning will be split equally between educational TV channels and online classes on the Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams platforms.
This is because the older students "are more likely to have electronic devices" and have more skills than their younger peers in managing online classes, said Mr Nataphol.
During the interview, the minister also addressed the concerns raised about underprivileged students and those in remote rural areas who do not have access to electricity, let alone televisions and computers.
"Giving away the equipment would require a huge budget. We don't know how long this (Covid-19) situation would last," said Mr Nataphol, who said teachers should ensure adequate learning for the underprivileged.
"Besides, outbreaks are unlikely to happen in remote areas anyway so those schools could still open without having to rely on distance learning," he added.
A Kasetsart University poll published in late April indicated that 66 per cent of schoolchildren had no computer while 57 per cent did not have access to the Internet at home. The same poll also found that only 58.2 per cent of teachers were ready for online teaching.
"It is worrisome for many underprivileged children who may be left behind. If the government cannot fully support them, then the private sector and local communities need to step in," said Mrs Ploypassorn Poolsawat, the administrative director of EDF, a Thai foundation raising funds for educating underprivileged children.
"But with the priority for charities currently given to healthcare, education may be neglected," she added.
Dr Pumsaran Tongliemnak, an education economist at the Equitable Education Fund, said: "This distance learning programme is what the government could do. Thailand has an advantage when educational television channels are already available. They are a good capital. But it is still not the best and only television learning would not be enough."
All government schools in Thailand were ordered shut on March 18 when the number of infections were soaring, but this has dropped to single digits over the past week.