In Eight Countries, Hard Choices In Bringing Students Back To School

When, who, how? Both the science and logistics are complex in deciding how to get  hundreds of millions of children around the world back to school. Here's a quick tour.

In China, schools remain closed in most parts of the country.
In China, schools remain closed in most parts of the country.

Countries starting to reopen after weeks in lockdown face the tricky questions of when and how to get the nation's students back into the classroom. Which ages go back first? What new rules are needed to minimize chances of future outbreaks? How will students be graded in post-pandemic education systems?

  • Little kids first: Denmark became the first European country to send kids back to schools after a month-long lockdown. Kindergartens and elementary schools were the first to reopen last week, in large part so that parents can return to work; high schools and universities should follow in mid-May. Reopened schools have to follow strict rules, including two-meter spacing between desks, disinfecting of the building several times a day and only up to 10 children allowed in one classroom.

  • Big kids first: In Germany, chancellor Angela Merkel plans a phased reopening to begin on May 4. Unlike Denmark, Germany's disease control agency recommends that older students who are more likely to follow strict distancing and hygiene rules, should return to classes first.

  • Strange senior year I: France announced Tuesday the progressive three-week reentry into the classroom, younger kids first. The end-of-the-year baccalauréat​ exam for those finishing high school has already been cancelled, leading to decidedly mixed feelings shared around the world: Parisian senior Serena summed it up to Le Monde: "I'm happy to not have to study, at the same time it was a moment we should have experienced all together, and we'll never experience it."

Children in a Danish school — Photo: David A. Williams/Xinhua/ZUMA

  • Strange senior year II: In Germany, where some of the first "Abitur" end-of-high-school exams are scheduled for the end of this week, one senior student in Berlin wanted to postpone her finals. She argued that she could not prepare for the finals properly as she doesn't have her own computer, couldn't study in a library and since she has been confined in a small apartment with her family 24/7 for a month, her ability to concentrate was significantly impaired by the family background noise. The regional administrative court rejected her request, saying her case is no special exception, reports Die Welt.

  • Change of plans I: Last week, Austria was supposed to join Denmark in returning to school, but changed course and kept schools closed, fearing that students would quickly start spreading the virus again.

  • Change of plans II: In Chile, schools were set to reopen next week, but Chilean president Sebastián Piñera postponed the gradual Back to School Plan until May in his speech on Sunday, reports Chilean radio ADN.

  • Staying Open: One notable country that has left its schools open during the pandemic is Sweden. However, more than 900 teachers and school staff have expressed their disapproval, reports Aftonbladet daily, saying that if the government officials thinks children — especially in kindergartens! — are going to follow strict distancing and hygiene guidelines, they either have a bad sense of humor or have never met a young child.

  • Staying Closed: In China, schools remain closed in most parts of the country. In Beijing and Shanghai, courses should restart next week for high-school seniors, with mandatory masks on for students and teachers. Wuhan, the city hardest hit by the COVID19 outbreak in China, is preparing to gradually reopen schools, but no schedule has been set yet, reports Chinese newspaper Global Times. Schools in the region are currently carrying out preparation work including disinfecting classrooms, installing body temperature monitoring instruments, and renovation of dining halls.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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