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Among the countries in which ChildFund Australia manages and implements programs, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children’s education has been the most severe in Myanmar.

Schools have been closed for almost a year, since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in the country in March 2020. Restrictions were eased briefly at the end of July 2020, allowing students to return to school, but the respite was short-lived. The number of COVID-19 cases began to rise again towards the end of August, prompting the Myanmar government to return to restrictions on public spaces and gatherings.

“The nationwide closure of schools is impacting millions of students,” ChildFund Myanmar National Education Coordinator, PoPo Thaung Win, says.

The prolonged shutdown, says ChildFund Myanmar’s Country Director Win May, will have the greatest impact on Myanmar’s most vulnerable children, such as children living in poverty, children living with disability, girls, and those living in remote and rural areas.

“They face a great risk of dropping out and never returning to school,” Win May says.

Once schools reopen, many children in the disadvantaged communities in which ChildFund works are at risk of entering the workforce, becoming full-time labourers, or staying at home to take care of younger siblings and household chores, to help their families.

Another concern, says Win May, is the health and wellbeing of children stuck at home with nowhere to go. “Many children are becoming isolated because of the lack of social connection,” she says.

Children also face higher protection risks while schools are closed because they can no longer access essential school equipment and services such as water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, health services, protection referrals for gender-based violence and abuse, and specialised services for children with disabilities.

Rethinking education

Myanmar has had to rapidly adapt to the changing situations posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

With support from UNESCO, the Ministry of Education has developed a COVID-19 response and recovery plan to help children to continue learning during and after the pandemic. The plan looks at how schools can eventually reopen safely, and how the country’s education system can be strengthened to cope with future emergencies.

When Phillip Solomon walked into the classroom in 2018 his students could not read or write – and he was determined to change this.

Phillip (pictured below) is an elementary teacher at Ruatoka Elementary School in Rigo, Central Province – just an hour and a half drive from Port Moresby.

He started teaching after being selected by his community to attend an elementary teacher training at the PNG Education Institute in 2003. After three years of training, he returned home to Rigo to teach in Ruatoko Elementary.

With eight teachers and 189 students, Ruatoka Elementary is the largest school in Rigo. It teaches the standards-based curriculum in a mix of local languages including Sinagoro, Motu, Tok Pisin and English.

In January 2018, Ruatoka was selected to take part in the Together for Education (T4E) project supported through the Papua New Guinea-Australia Partnership.

Phillip was among 40 teachers from 26 Rigo schools who attended the first teacher training in early 2018.

“He demonstrated enthusiasm, commitment and was an active participant during the training,” said Child Fund project coordinator Dulcie Wefin.

“His group presentation skills were outstanding, which earned himself a spot for further training as a resource teacher.”

He was also trained to use the tools of Peer Observation and Teacher Learning Circle, where resource teachers conduct school-based or cluster in-service training on identified areas for improvement.

An analysis conducted with support from former Ruatoka Elementary School teacher-in-charge Belline Kila identified reading problems as a key issue to address.

Belline said what was required was strengthening phonics, reducing language barriers, improving access to reading materials and merging of language and English syllabi to teach reading.

“Phillip organized a meeting with parents who identified the same issues.

He then created an action plan that pointed to staff meetings, peer observation, school assemblies, teacher learning circles and cluster in-service training ways to overcome the reading problem,” she said.

Phillip immediately started the teacher learning circles on phonics and assisted teachers with difficulty in phonics teaching.

Fellow teacher Barbara James was drawn to Philip’s style of teaching phonics.

“I fell in love with Phillip’s phonics teaching. I wanted to learn more so I would stand outside Phillip’s classroom to hear how he teaches phonics,” Barbara said.

Mr Phillip Solomon addresses a school assemble at Ruatoka Elementary School_compressed

Barbara also participated in the training program which provided a boost to her teaching skills and students’ academic performance.

“After observing and listening to how Phillip teaches phonics, I can now confidently teach phonics to my class,” said Barbara.

With support and commitment from the teachers at the school, reading has now been included as part of the school assembly.

While teaching at Makerupu Elementary in 2019, Phillip was rewarded for his performance with a promotion from base level teacher to head teacher.

In 2020 he was asked by the Rigo District Education Office to mentor teachers throughout the District.

Phillip works alongside the Central Provincial Elementary Coordinator and resource teachers from Launakalana to share knowledge about lesson planning and teach English or Language to improve literacy throughout Rigo.

“My students are now in elementary one and can confidently read simple sentences and comprehend,” he said.

A student from Mr Solomon’s class demonstrating his reading skills_compressed

“This is my success story and what makes me content at the end of the day.”

Phillip is training teachers on effective teaching and learning strategies to improve elementary children’s reading skills.

T4E aims to improve literacy and numeracy of early grade learners in Central, Morobe and Madang provinces.

The project involves collaboration from the National Department of Education, provincial education divisions, church education agencies and schools and communities in the areas where this project is present.

The project is delivered by World Vision and its partners ChildFund, the Consultative Implementation & Monitoring Council, Library For All Australia and the University of Canberra.