Some international schools in Bangkok are quietly preparing for an extended period of online learning even after the start of the next school year in August.
As Thailand opens up later this year, the COVID-19 virus could start spreading again, putting non-vaccinated, including children, at risk of falling ill. This could set off new rounds of school closures across the country.
The ongoing spread of the COVID-19 virus in Bangkok and surrounding provinces shows no signs of abating, with daily new infections counted in the thousands.
With the virus situation having improved in other parts of the country, including Phuket and Chiang Mai, international schools there were able to reopen their campuses and welcome children back to school a few weeks before the end of the school year. In the region centered around the nation’s capital, however, online learning at international schools continued all the way to the end of the final term.
There are now clear signs that international schools in Bangkok are quietly preparing for continued online learning when the next school year starts in August.
Bangkok Patana is Thailand’s largest international school, with more than 2200 students. In an email distributed to parents on June 9, the school management leaves room for uncertainty over the opening of the campus after the summer break, writing: ”We do remain hopeful that we will be able to open for Term 1 on 18th August.”
Dr. Anders Engvall is a senior analyst at TIS Monitor.
”It’s a carefully crafted letter. They realize that they cannot promise that the campus will open in August, at the start of the next school year. The school management prefers to raise the possibility already now that campus will remain shut, as it would allow for families and employees to adapt their plans. That is why they use the word ’hopeful’. The alternative would have been to give false expectations through a potentially empty promise that the campus will open again after the summer break, or, even worse, say nothing and thus create uncertainty for everybody,” he says.
St Andrews NAE on Sukhumvit 71 is another example. In an email sent on June 11, the head of school informs parents that: ”We are continuing to work with both OPEC and the BMA to ensure that all of our staff are vaccinated before the beginning of the new school year, on Monday 16th August,” without committing to opening the campus after the summer break.
Since these emails were distributed, the COVID-19 situation has worsened.
There are exceptions, however. Bangkok Prep is a large international school in Bangkok. Here, Head of School Mr Duncan Stonehouse takes a much more positive view of the school’s possibility to reopen the campus again for the school start in August.
In an email to parents dated June 11, he writes: ”As you are aware, the issuing of vaccines around the world, especially in Thailand, has made great progress. This means that we should be able to confidently open our school, as planned, for all students on Thursday 19th August.”
No updated fees
Another sign of some schools being very cautious about promising an opening of campuses for the start of next school year is the absence of updated fees on their websites for the coming school year.
With less than two months to go before term one 2021/22 starts, a remarkably high number of international schools have by the end of June not yet published their new fees on their websites, including large and well-known schools such as St Andrews NAE and Shrewsbury.
”The schools are in a very difficult position. They know that parents don’t want to pay full fees for online learning, yet it is too early for them to commit to discounts since they don’t know if they will be able to open in August. The schools risk an exodus of families if they already now present new, full fees for schooling that might end up being online,” Dr. Anders Engvall says.
If schools in Bangkok remain closed, expat families may choose to return to their countries of origin. In many countries with higher vaccination rates, schools are set to be remain open.
”Some families may be reluctant to pay high fees for online learning as it is perceived as a more generic service. They might seek other, more affordable options,” Dr. Anders Engvall says.
That means international schools risk a major blow to their revenues.
Hedging against the risk
One company running international schools is trying to hedge against that risk. SISB, Singapore International School Bangkok, runs schools on four different campuses in Thailand, with a total of more than 2600 students.
In a recent email to parents, the school offers them a 2% discount on tuition fees fixed at the 2021/22 rate if they pay upcoming fees up front for two to five years. Officially, the offer is part of the company’s 20th anniversary. But it is also a way for SISB to secure revenue for many years to come, regardless of their campuses being open or closed.
Uncertain future for schools
For international schools in Thailand, the worst could still be to come.Thailand’s overall strategy to deal with the pandemic has been to close its borders, quarantine anyone entering the country and thoroughly suppress local outbreaks of the virus. This has proven successful as Thailand for long managed to avoid widespread COVID-19 infections. Most of last year, and the beginning of this year, have seen the country operating more or less as normal.
This is in contrast to those countries, especially in Europe and North America, where the virus ripped through society, with high fatality rates among older citizens and other risk groups.
Thailand is now slowly vaccinating its population – but as in other countries, not the children. When Thailand starts to open up for foreign visitors, the virus could start spreading, and those who have not yet been vaccinated could fall ill.
”We will probably see many children catching the virus. Even though in most cases it will not lead to serious illness, schools will need to deal with the fact that there can be large outbreaks of COVID-19 among their students. These schools may be ordered by authorities to shut down and move to online learning again,” Dr. Anders Engvall says, before concluding:
”Thailand will have to find ways to manage COVID-19 in the long-run. I think we are going to see international schools opening and closing their campuses over and over again as we learn to live with the virus.”