The delivery model of education in Bhutan— unchanged for decades— was suddenly disrupted when the coronavirus pandemic broke out. In an attempt to stop the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, many private schools in the country turned to online learning. The results have not been great. From spotty access to the internet to substandard courses to an unstable living environment to affordability. On top of it, with the teachers relegated to computer screens, parents were now required to play teacher’s aide, hall monitor, counselor and cafeteria worker— all while trying to do their own jobs under extraordinary circumstances. To cap it all, parents are now told by the private schools to pay their kid’s school fee in full as they would under a traditional model of education. This is cruel and unfair—more so in a pandemic.
As schools are reduced from brick-and-mortar campuses to virtual classrooms, so too have the costs associated with a traditional school gone down significantly. Most of the resources and overhead costs needed to keep a traditional school going, like academic buildings, administration, school facilities, extracurricular activities, a quad filled with students, etc., all of this which comes at a price but which enhances the overall school experience of a child, are eliminated in an online learning. Given the dramatically changed circumstances, why private schools would demand full school fees as before is anyone’s guess.
Most parents, say in Thimphu, work full time. Like so many others in the country in this pandemic, they are also attempting to keep their family safe and fed while simultaneously working to convince their own aging parents to practice social distancing, reaching out to other loved ones and friends and trying not to panic. On top of it, they have to find ways to stand in as the teacher’s aides in their kid’s online learning program.
Not an easy task. Among other things, kids need help logging into Zoom. Sixth-graders need help with algebra, last used by dad circa 1994. Keeping an eye as they surf the internet to make sure whatever they are looking at is age-appropriate. Easily distracted kids. Unreliable internet. Cranky and demanding bosses in offices. All these can overwhelm a working parent, logistically and emotionally.
Obviously, it is a whole less painful for wealthy parents with more flexibility, more security, who can employ extra help to attend to their kid’s at-home academic enrichment programs including online learning, and therefore have no qualms about paying any school fee. But what about those parents who are no so wealthy?
So many parents are burnt out from trying to help educate and manage their children at home when they should be in school. Others who have reached breaking moments want to give up on their kid’s online learning all together and make them repeat the same class next year when things improve. Parents are also finding it hard to accept that few minutes of Zoom classes or lessons sent by emails will prepare their kids for their next class— or indeed their future.
But they can’t take their kids out of the program. They have been told by the private schools that their kid will have no seats waiting for them when they return to repeat if they pull out of this year’s online learning. So parents are essentially caught between a rock and a hard place.
The education minister has, very conveniently, tossed the ball in the private school’s court, as an issue between the school and the parents, essentially telling the private schools to do what they have to do. Now instead of intervening in this outrageous bullying tactics used by the private school against the parents, the education ministry and the government sit by in spineless silence. The lack of a strong decisive leadership from the education ministry and how it continues to stand by while the crisis has engulfed the public is beyond this writer. If the strategy was to shift responsibility and escape blame, it has not worked.
Parents are under no illusions that the private schools will provide us their online learning programs for free— nor do we expect it. We understand that, among other things, there are teachers to be paid. We understand that we are all swimming in the same uncertain pool of economic anxiety and fear.
As fellow citizens though, what we were expecting is some empathy— so inspiringly and movingly demonstrated by our beloved King, in His words and in His actions. What we were expecting from the private schools is, not unreasonably, some reduction in the school fee since the model of education has moved from traditional school to online learning, and since because of the shift the overhead costs of the private schools have been considerably reduced.
It is wonderful that technology has enabled our students to keep learning even when direct contact is difficult to achieve. The pandemic has provided our education ministry and schools to reimagine education around the pillars of access and affordability with the myriad tools and techniques at their disposal. A little empathy and a strong leadership will certainly go a long way in making our lives a lot less painful.
Contributed by Karma
A parent in Thimphu