Vietnam is sharply divided on how long to close schools because of the coronavirus, which has prevented parents from going to work and threatens further economic damage. Supporters want to keep students at home until April, while opponents say the panic is overblown.
The biggest population is in Ho Chi Minh City, where government leaders have proposed extending the public school closures all through March and then continuing the semester into what would usually be a summer break. The city leaders also recommended making this a nation-wide policy.
Le Thanh Liem, Vice Chair of the People's Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, tasked the city education department with keeping the disease from reaching the schools.
The department will “strictly and fully implement measures to prevent and treat the new coronavirus, preventing the spread of an epidemic in the school environment,” he wrote in an official letter.
Those who agree with the government decision see the coronavirus as a collective action problem, requiring people to keep physical contact at a minimum. Pham Khanh said it is better to be safe than sorry.
“I decided on my own to take my children out of school,” she said. “There is a long incubation period, I will wait two weeks before I do anything.”
She was referring to the two weeks when doctors believe that people, if they have the coronavirus, would show symptoms.
While parents are keeping their children at home, another kind of school is catching on: online classes. After some initial excitement, with foreign governments from the U.S. to Britain promoting e-learning in Vietnam, the trend stalled for years, because of regulatory hurdles and lack of internet access.
“E-learning deployment within the academic system in Vietnam has not really taken off, mostly due to the over-focus on hardware and remaining confusion between digitization of educational contents and online education,” Alice Pham wrote in a 2018 report for the Consumer Unity & Trust Society think tank.
However the coronavirus may be a factor that finally drives e-learning into the mainstream in Vietnam. This month students are increasingly doing homework that their schools send to them over the internet, as well as turning to startup companies such as Yola, Topica, and Mindx, which let Vietnamese learn through smartphone apps or web videos.
Supporters say Vietnam should see the school closures as an opportunity for children to get some experience as self-directed learners, through online lessons.'
“Definitely in Vietnam this model needs to spread as soon as possible,” writer Nguyen Hong wrote in a commentary for the Thanh Nien newspaper.
Besides the benefit to education technology companies, the coronavirus has meant a windfall for some other companies as well. Foreign buyers such as Nintendo and Apple that are struggling to source from China are increasingly turning to suppliers in Vietnam to make their products.
However most companies, and households, are waiting for a return to normal.
After the Lunar New Year holiday ended in late January, most Vietnamese welcomed the school closures as a logical precaution against the coronavirus. However as the weeks drag on, parents now struggle with what to do with their school age children.
Le Hang, a 40-year-old mother, decided to take her children to the hair salon where she works.
“When there aren’t many customers, I run over to feed and take care of the children,” she said.
However the most vulnerable, such as factory workers, are those who can’t afford babysitters, aren’t allowed to bring children to work, and can’t afford the lost income of skipping work. Some send the children to stay with neighbors or relatives, while others consider the latch-key life.
Nguyen Viet, a tour guide, doesn’t know what to do with his daughter. “The unexpected break is too much to bear for us," he told newspaper Vnexpress.
What’s more, some believe the extended school closures are an overreach. Vietnam has had more than a dozen coronavirus cases and no fatalities. Most of the over 2,000 people who died were in China, and most of them were senior citizens or in poor health already. By comparison there have been more than 16,000 flu associated deaths reported in the United States so far this flu season according to estimates of the U.S. based Centers for Disease Control. “I believe that with the solutions currently being applied, children will be safe at school,” said Le Kien, a father in Hanoi.