With children not in schools, adults must learn new lessons

By Viet Anh   November 1, 2021 | 08:30 pm PT
There are legitimate reasons for Vietnamese parents and other stakeholders to worry about the adverse impacts of the prolonged closure of schools on their children, experts say.

It was the end of October and Vu Thanh Mai was stressed out. The HCMC resident couldn't wait for the schools to reopen for her two boys, one in primary and the other in secondary school.

It has been two years since they have been able to attend school normally as a result of Covid-19 related closures. Instead they have had to attend online classes.

The prolonged virtual learning has had several negative effects on her sons, Mai said.

The boys were struggling to keep up with their studies, especially the one in primary school. They were easily distracted by games and other entertainment channels when they did their homework independently. Mai has to work closely with them every day to ensure they performed well in their regular exams. This was on top of her own work at office and home.

Mai said she was also worried about their physical health. The boys could not do regular exercises because it would disturb neighbors in the building. They had missed swimming classes that she’d paid for before the summer. The constant online studying has worsened the vision of one of her sons. The mother has also noticed that her boys are becoming less interested in communicating with others.

"I am anxious about their development in the long run," Mai said.

Mai's children are among more than 7.3 million students in 26 cities and provinces in Vietnam that have been engaged in online learning for a long time, according to statistics released by the Ministry of Education and Training mid-September.

In Hanoi, Tran My Hang, who also has two kids, shared Mai's anxieties about the prolonged home-schooling.

She said she was doing her bit by trying to talk to her kids and understand their real interests, encouraging them to do housework and learn to cook new dishes as part of activities to keep them physically and mentally healthy. Besides, she urged them to join family contests with cousins and even write on various topics including Covid impacts.

But, she added, her son has a heavy learning schedule as he prepares to enter high school next year and her daughter has not gone to school since 2020. While parents can assist the children with their learning, they cannot replace professional teachers, and this gap is very worrying.

Taesung Ahn, South Korean father of an 11-year-old daughter in Hanoi, said the biggest challenge was the daughter missing important parts of the lesson when she lost concentration. Teachers cannot instantly explain what she did not understand or follow up on it thoroughly because they had had time limit within which they had to teach all the children. So Ahn and his wife divided the subjects that they need to "learn" to assist their daughter with homework, he said.

Ahn and his wife were also concerned about the girl's physical well-being, including eyesight being affected because of prolonged staring at the screen. It was also evident that she missed her friends and school, something that is difficult to find a substitute for.

The couple said they were saving more time to talk with their child, playing badminton with her and engaging in other activities.

"We are trying to make her laugh more, although it is not easy."

Taesung Ahn (L), his wife and daughter in Hanoi. Photo by Taesung Ahn

Taesung Ahn (L), his wife and daughter in Taiwan, Dec. 23, 2019. Photo by Taesung Ahn

Le Lien, of the central province of Quang Binh, said her biggest concern was how to have her children maintain self-discipline in online learning, because she and her husband could not watch over them every single minute. She said it was not easy to check if her kids were doing homework independently or playing games.

Lien also shared other parents’ concerns about the physical and mental health of children. She said she understood that her 13-year-old girl needed to talk to her peers who are the same age for various topics.

All she can do for them is "act as their friend", make jokes and cook different kinds of food, but Lien is worried that what she is doing is inadequate.

Serious problems

To Thi Hoan, a school psychology specialist, said that while there has been no official report on the pandemic’s influence on children in the country, she could see it was serious from what parents told her as they sought her advice.

She said the unprecedented lengthening of online learning left children more tired during the day and affected their concentration. The new term of "Zoom fatigue" is also true for students, she added.

Hoan said it was easy for children to get stressed and anxious as a result of irregular learning schedules, sharing of electronic equipment with parents or siblings, and inconvenient conditions at home. The children were also affected by the tensions of parents and teachers, she said, noting that this has led to many students trying to avoid classes, resist or engage in "unexpected" behaviors towards adults.

The lack of interaction with peers can be a demotivating factor, Hoan said, adding, "Covid has had profound effects on children."

A student in an online class in Hanoi, September, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hang.

A primary school student attends an online class in Hanoi, September 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hang

Jeaniene Spink, research director of the Education and Development Program at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), said it was widely known that students in developing countries, including Vietnam, have been negatively impacted by the pandemic because they have been unable to attend school.

She said that schools are not just learning centers, they support children's development in general. They are institutes where risks and problems regarding kids are identified and dealt with, apart from providing support in a broader sense.

Long-term impacts

Dr William Smith, senior lecturer in Education and International Development, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, said there was a large range of obvious consequences of the pandemic on children in emerging countries like Vietnam.

Smith said it was not just the loss of learning but also "about big pieces of socialization and well-being." It is the school environment that allows kids to learn about social interactions, how to engage in a community, feel connected to peers and get a sense of belonging - all of which "are incredibly important."

In addition, with home-schooling, children have to learn to interact with adults more regularly and virtually engage with peers. This can create some mental health issues, he said, adding: "School closures could have some long term effects on children."

Smith said the importance of schools in communities cannot be underestimated, especially in developing countries. A school is more than a place of study. For children, it can also be a safe space, a place where they are fed regularly and access tools and facilities absent at home. Authorities should consider these aspects, he said.

Many children in developing countries, including Vietnam, had to meet increasing demand for them to contribute to the family during the pandemic crisis. Girls could take on more domestic responsibilities, and boys looked to join the labor force and help the family as the economy started shrinking, he said.

He was concerned about the dropout rate increasing as students get less motivated and see online learning as boring and irrelevant.

ACER’s Spink said that by and large, students in developing countries, including Vietnam, where many lived in difficult circumstances, were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Many suffer because they do not have books, computers and other facilities at home and start to fall behind without attending schools in person.

She cited a study conducted at the end of 2020 that found primary school students who did not have books and parents' support in doing homework in Southeast Asia were already two years behind their peers.

Students of higher socioeconomic status who have learning materials in the home, technology access and good connection with friends are able to handle pandemic challenges well, she said.

Data from Vietnam's education ministry released last month showed that more than 2.2 million students in 56 provinces and cities were facing shortages of computers for online learning. Meanwhile many have to make do with weak internet signals.

Mitigating factors

Hoan said that parents were on the frontline in limiting the pandemic’s negative effects on children.

They should create a private space for children to avoid distractions, help them to set up scientific timetables both for learning and daily activities, encourage them to exercise, increase family interaction, and highlight what kids have done well, instead of focusing on fixing their mistakes.

Particularly, parents need to recognize early the warning signs of mental health being affected, like abnormal eating and sleeping behaviors, constant headache or stomach pain, unusually short-tempered, hyperactive or moody, uninterested in friends or pets, evasion of social interactions, and so on. Then they must discuss this with teachers or ask psychologists for help.

As for teachers and schools, Hoan said that making lessons simple and interesting would be vital in attracting students. Besides, educators should properly allocate screen time and their dedication should demonstrate that "they do care about their students."

Parents and teachers have to make sure that they prevent putting undue pressure on children, she said.

Spink said it was most important that parents show their interest and encourage children to overcome difficulties.

She said parents should actively assist teachers in identifying the needs of students, both academically and socially. She said governments need to investigate, collect evidence at different community levels to understand the impact of the pandemic and provide appropriate support in the short, medium and long term.

Smith said schools should not just focus on increasing children's scores during the pandemic without caring about what's going on in their life. Instead, they should adopt a holistic approach, recognizing that there are students facing social and psychological challenges.

He said students will keep learning even when schools are shut, and the pandemic can be an opportunity for them to learn life lessons about going through challenging times.

While schools in dozens of cities and provinces in Vietnam have yet to announce specific reopening plans, Ahn, the South Korean father, said it would be much more useful for children if teachers could give more personal assistance in class.

Although it was being said that children could become more resilient in the future after experiencing the pandemic crisis, Ahn said "endurance has a limit", so kids should not be challenged for a long time.

Hang from Hanoi said it was true that people need to accept the fact children have no other choice than virtual learning as it was a common condition around the world because of the pandemic, but she still felt uncertain about what the experience could "teach" them.

"They are not old enough to learn the lessons from this crisis."

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