Guest article by Dana McNairn – Gender, Diversity and Inclusion Specialist
The Covid-19 pandemic is not only a global health and economic crisis, but it is also a crisis for children’s education. According to UNESCO, school closures around the world have affected more than 90% of the world’s student population. Exacerbated by social distancing and restrictions on movement, acquired knowledge (such as math or reading) or new learned abilities (such as analysing a short story) may be forgotten, making it harder for children to catch up upon returning to school.
Here in Vietnam schools were closed from the Lunar New Year holiday (Tết Nguyên Đán) in January and only began to reopen in early May, in gradual increments by grade. The three-month closure affected all schools from kindergarten through grade 12, universities, vocational colleges, and training centres.
In some cases, schools were able to switch to online learning, and parents and caregivers became temporary teachers. However, this is based on the assumption that schools were equipped to roll out distance learning and that the students themselves had computers and internet connections at home.
For many students, and especially the school children that Saigon Children’s Charity works with, the latter assumption usually does not hold true. Many of these children and their families simply do not have the resources to implement online learning, or any learning for that matter. Poverty, worsened by the pandemic, means that if children aren’t in school, they may be helping their parents earn extra money for the household.
Saigon Children’s Charity runs its Child Development Scholarship Programme in six provinces across southern Vietnam: Tay Ninh, Dong Nai, Ho Chi Minh, Tien Giang, Hau Giang and Tra Vinh. Nguyen Thi Duy Huong, Head of Programmes, has seen this educational disadvantage firsthand. “With the schools closed for three months, many of the children we work with already suffer from poor scholastic performance,” says Huong, “so they lag behind and are at a higher risk of dropping out.”
Huong said that the first challenge brought about by the pandemic related closure of schools in economically vulnerable areas is the issue of child labour. “During the school closures, these children often had to provide labour to family households when one or both parents lost their jobs,” she said.
The second challenge Huong identifies is the children’s inability to either learn new topics or keep up with their lessons after such a long closure. “Many of these these children’s parents are illiterate, so the idea of homeschooling just isn’t applicable and there is no support available in the community to maintain their studies or study new subjects.” The third challenge, says Huong, is the lack of access to education where online learning is simply not an option. These schools rarely have computers and due to the poverty of the locations where saigonchildren works, there is seldom Internet. “These challenges illustrate the lack of opportunities for these children to have access to education.”
Saigonchildren’s concern is that because of the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic, there will continue to be income instability and job loss even as the government cautiously encourages the resumption of economic activities. Huong says this is another factor that puts marginalised children at greater risk of dropping out of school in order to help their families.
The Child Development Programme has provided learning fees to 1,700 children across the six target provinces. The programme also supplies textbooks, notebooks, uniforms, and where necessary, bicycles. Huong explains that urgent support is also provided for families struggling with healthcare issues or for those who have an unexpected large expense, such as a funeral. The project provides training for the children and their families on topics such as communication skills and safeguarding. Social counselling is also available for students who are most at risk of dropping out of school, for both the children and their families.
Closing the achievement gap during and after the crisis passes is paramount to saigonchildren’s work. Huong says saigonchildren is grateful for the support received from their donors and partners to keep the scholarship programme going during this difficult time. “These supporters strongly believe in investing in education for children and the benefits that brings to their communities.” She identifies another opportunity with this programme in that the students themselves are very eager to go to school and that most parents are determined to send their kids to school. Income and job hardships, however, sometimes force parents to make difficult decisions. The Child Development Scholarship Programme is equally determined to assist those families. Huong also acknowledges a high degree of success in working with saigonchildren’s local partners and government authorities in the provinces where the scholarship project runs. During the lockdown and social distancing, for example, when saigonchildren staff and volunteers could not go out to the communities, local authorities volunteered to assess the impact of the pandemic on the children and their families within their communities. Saigonchildren was able to quickly prioritise and target support to the families most in need and utilise local partners to deliver emergency support such as food packages.
How to contribute
Individuals and businesses can support saigonchildren’s important work in a number of ways.
“From our in-field observations and community surveys, there are still so many disadvantaged children out there,” says Huong. “We have so many students on our waiting list.” The pandemic will eventually end, but poverty and lack of access to education will remain. In addition to regular monthly giving or project sponsorship, saigonchildren always welcomes volunteers to give time and expertise, for example, training programs for children include life skills and communication skills. Saigonchildren is looking into developing and offering IT skills training and is interested in coding classes to help level the playing field for their students. Contact saigonchildren directly with your ideas on how you can support the education of these kids today.
“Give us a hand,” says Huong, “to reach more disadvantaged kids.”