2021 is a challenging year for the Education Ministry to provide quality teaching and solve issues concerning the system.
First of all, a resurgence of Covid-19 infections has already forced many schools to move back to distance learning once again -- whether they are ready or not.
All schools in the worst-hit 28 provinces across the country have been ordered by the ministry to close until Jan 31 and switch to online learning due to the recent spike in Covid-19 cases.
The situation has sparked concern among academics that it will impact the learning process as it means the educational trajectory of students is halted and their learning and development is impeded or even stopped.
Urgent interventions are needed to help teachers and students in smaller and more remote schools gain access to online learning materials to ensure that they do not fall behind.
Warning on online teaching
Dilaka Lathapipat, Human Development Economist for the Education Unit of the World Bank based in Bangkok, warned the Thai education system is fatigued and not well-prepared to implement online learning, following a survey that showed a stark digital divide between urban and rural children in terms of the equipment they have at their disposal to participate in remote learning.
A survey found online resources for students are limited in quality and quantity. Bigger schools are better equipped with financial, educational and technological resources than smaller schools. Many small schools are facing a severe shortage of basic resources.
Most of the Thai educational content online also replicates traditional pedagogy, which is based on a top-down rote-learning approach.
If teachers don't change their pedagogy to incorporate technology to invite students to participate, the lectures will be static and less effective, he added.
He suggested education units address this deficit while getting ready to deal with a resurgence of Covid-19 infections more efficiently than they did during the first wave of the pandemic.
Ministry in full gear
Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan said the ministry has prepared for a new wave of infections and reassures parents that all schools are capable of teaching their students during the pandemic.
Schools in high-risk provinces have been instructed to provide online or DLTV satellite learning since Dec 21, Mr Nataphol said.
Obec's secretary-general, Amporn Pinasa, said he had ordered all schools under the supervision of Obec in high-risk provinces to shut. Another assessment of the Covid-19 situation will be made later.
"Ensuring education continuity in a safe and healthy environment will our first priority this year," Mr Amporn said.
In cases where face-to-face education is impossible, the Education Ministry has prepared three modes of distance learning, namely television, on-demand resources via the digital education excellence platform (Deep), and interactive online education to ensure learning continuity, as they were used during the lockdown last year.
"We may have to bring back these measures if necessary. Students' health always comes first," he said.
Under the measures, kindergarten students will study on TV, and so will primary to lower secondary students, who will also learn using Deep. Upper secondary seniors will take lessons through all three channels of instruction.
Students will only be allowed to return to bricks-and-mortar classrooms if onsite learning is deemed safe. Anti-virus measures will be installed alongside possible staggered classes where students take turns to attend school on alternate days.
Mr Amporn said he believed this time teachers will be more comfortable using digital technologies in their classrooms, as they already had some experience from last year.
Student protests challenge
Apart from the pandemic, another big challenge before the ministry this year is the protest campaign that has brought thousands of students out on the streets to demand a better education system.
Last year, "Bad student", a group of high school students and student organisations from 50 educational outlets nationwide, staged rallies across the country to protest against the Ministry of Education, demanding changes to the curriculum and school regulations.
The student protesters also delivered an ultimatum -- the education minister must resign if he could not meet their demands.
Athapol Anunthavorasakul, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Education, said the protests by school students were a new phenomenon to Thailand. For those in power, it might be the first time they have witnessed open rebellion from high-school students.
"It'll be a challenging year for the ministry as the student movement is likely to continue," he said. "The only solution in my opinion is that the ministry must show its sincerity to listen to students' demands and make changes."
In response, Education Minister Nataphol said he is ready to listen to students' demands and the ministry has already taken action with several school policies to cater to their demands. However, he refuses to leave his post.
"We have unlocked rules on students' hairstyles, but the development of learning courses may not be as same as other countries because this must be in line with the Thai context, while we cannot cancel the dress code because students worldwide still wear uniforms to ensure their safety," he said.
He said to deal with sexual harassment in school, the ministry had established a centre for sexual assault victims' protection to investigate cases. He added that 15 teachers who had committed offences had been fired.
Recently, the ministry has also proposed the cabinet to approve new learning guidelines which will free up more time for activities that better promote students' learning.