When will the schools reopen?

This is a question on the minds of many parents with schools closed and students staying home, some mostly on their own.

The longing for school reopening is not just from the concern of children missing a year or the care and protection they receive from teachers while in schools. It is also from not being able to guide them with their online lessons. And for some, not being able to control or monitor what their children are up to.

Most parents, including those in the villages, are aware that spending long hours watching TV or fiddling with smartphones is not good. But the current situation provided the excuse to exactly do that. With lessons delivered online, TV, computers or mobile phones have become the platform for learning. It is where the problem is.

The UNICEF office in the country together with local partners has issued an advisory recommending what parents and schools should do help students. This comes as a good reminder especially when we are not sure of when children would return to schools and teachers.

According to the advisory, millions of children around the world are at increased risk of harm as their lives move online in the wake of the new coronavirus. They warn of online exploitation, exposure to potentially harmful and violent contents as well at a greater risk of cyberbullying.

The warnings are timely. Not all parents have time to monitor and not all are ICT literate to judge what children are watching or reading online. The problem, for most parents, is the cost of buying phones or access to internet. What the internet exposes children to is not even considered.

While the so-called educated parents are assumed to be better, the lack of time and priority leaves children vulnerable. Besides, knowing how to operate a smartphone is not considered literate. It is said that in Bhutan children are exposed to a lot of things from what parents have on their phones or laptops.

We can surmise that many parents would not have thought of the dangers lurking in the wide world of the internet besides worrying about data consumption. The excuse of studying online, some parents shared, had children as young as 10 own phones with internet connection.

Studying online is a new concept in Bhutan. While the ministry and experts are thinking of riding on technology in education post Covid-19, there are issues that need to be resolved. Today, experiences parents share, like a child finishing all the data watching K-Pop on YouTube, is laughed away or is a topic for gossiping.

Keeping children away from being online or social media is not possible and not practical. But the pleasure children derive from online time should not blind us to the harm it can cause. Parents and children are used to classrooms because they offer protection or reprieve from violence, exploitation and other difficult circumstances.

The internet world is totally different. Installing software, safety features and talking to children about their time on internet. These are good ideas as long as parents themselves know the ills of smartphones or social media. Our bigger problem here, it seems, is the need to educating parents first.