When the COVID-19 pandemic closed Myanmar’s schools in June 2020, Htar’s nine-year-old daughter Tweltar reacted as most children would. “At the start, she was happy that she didn't need to go to school and could play at home much more than before,” Htar explains. But, as school closures lengthened from weeks into months, Tweltar changed her mind. “Gradually, she realized that her school had been closed for a long time and she wanted to start learning again."
Nearly 18 months later, many of Myanmar’s children remain out of school. Successive waves of COVID-19, escalating conflict and turmoil caused by the coup have discouraged them from returning.
Tin Ma Ma Htet, the founder of the Saya Foundation based in Mandalay, emphasizes the difficulties that parents and children are facing. “Though schools recently officially reopened, most parents are not willing to let their children go back due to security issues. Some communities are facing life-threatening situations like conflict. As children lose hope, their mental health is affected.”
When schools first closed in 2020, the Saya Foundation launched two initiatives with Community Partners International’s support to help children continue their education.
“First, we started a home learning program to provide online learning to children nationwide. This was for children with access to the internet and parental support for homeschooling,” Tin Ma Ma Htet explains. “We developed video lessons for core subjects like Myanmar language, English language, mathematics, and science, as well as other subjects like health education, art, handicrafts, storytelling and dance.”
“For children without internet access, we started a community-based education program where we support teachers to conduct informal classes in their communities,” she adds. “We provide course materials, curriculum, and teaching aids. In some areas, we provide whiteboards. The foundation conducted online training for teachers and volunteers and we also provide stipends to help them cover their living expenses.”
Htar enrolled her Tweltar in the home learning program after finding out about it on Facebook and is delighted with her progress. “This program has helped her a lot,” she affirms. “I have watched her imagination and creativity develop day by day. She even received an award for her creativity. Her favorite subjects are art and handicrafts. She has also learned to listen to stories and come up with story ideas. After attending the health education class she asked me to put less salt in the food.”
The Saya Foundation has faced several challenges. “In some places, children have dropped out because of the instability, and families have been forced to move because of conflict and the economic crisis.” Tin Ma Ma Htet explains. “The coup has also created many safety and security concerns. During the third wave of COVID-19, some students and teachers in the centers were infected and we had to close them temporarily. At the same time, there is a high demand from parents to enroll in our programs but we don’t have the resources yet to help all of the children so the selection process is very difficult.”
To date, more than 3,000 children have enrolled on Saya Foundation’s home learning program, and a further 686 are enrolled in their 22 community-based education centers across Myanmar. Tin Ma Ma Htet and her colleagues at the Saya Foundation are determined to continue their vital work. “Whether there is COVID-19 or a coup, learning must go on.”