Schools in ethnic army-controlled areas near Myanmar’s borders with Thailand and China have been operating regularly throughout 2020, even as most schools have been closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which is surging in the Southeast Asian country.
Though all schools across Myanmar are closed due to the pandemic, schools in territory controlled by the Mon ethnic armed group, as well as others in Kayin state and Tanintharyi region, are open.
Authorities from the New Mon State Party (NMSP), an opposition party that signed the Myanmar government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement in 2018, said that Mon national education schools within its territory in Mon state have remained opened because they believe that students and teachers are not at risk of infection.
On Thursday, Myanmar recorded 113,082 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 1,182 new ones, and 2,377 deaths since March, according to the Ministry of Health and Sports. Yangon and Mandalay regions, home to Myanmar’s two largest cities by population, have recorded the highest number of cases. In Mon state, nearly 2,000 people have tested positive for the virus since April.
More than 20 Mon national schools have remained open at the request of students and parents, said Min Aung Zay, coordinator of the Mon National Education Committee (MNEC), which oversees a network of schools that educate primary students in their own language.
Mi Nwe Oo of Ei Shey village said she is conflicted over the decision.
“I am worried that my children would be distracted by the outside world if they didn’t go to school for a long time, but at the same time I am concerned about the risk of them getting infected if they are in school,” she said.
Authorities initially delayed the start of the academic year in 2020 to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, but then opened schools under NMSP regulations intended to curb the spread of the virus, Min Aung Zay said.
“These schools are located in very far-flung areas of the New Mon State Party’s controlled territory,” he said. “Some are in the border area, but they are far away from population centers, so we have negotiated with the NMSP and agreed to keep them open.”
Authorities also wanted to avoid having idle children and unemployed teachers, he said.
“We were worried that our students might be distracted if the schools were not kept open,” he said. “We also worried that the teachers will be unemployed if the schools remained closed.”
‘It was up to the parents’
Overall, there are 1,506 schools in Mon state with more than 16,000 teachers. The MNEC administers a network of 133 Mon national schools that provide instruction to over 10,000 students in ethnic Mon communities across the state and in and neighboring Kayin state and upper Tanintharyi region.
The fewer than 100 schools that are jointly operated with the government provide instruction for over 14,000 students and employ 780 teachers.
Mi Thoon Malay, headmistress of Mon High School in Nyi Sar village, said the institution has remained open because there is no risk of COVID-19 infections in the community. Nevertheless, the school has implemented the NMSP’s virus protections measures.
“The Education Department also provided materials such as face masks and hand sanitizer for students,” she said. “That’s why we have been able to open our schools.”
Officials from Mon state’s Education Department said schools in areas outside NMSP-controlled areas would resume classes only after government-run schools reopened.
Mon national schools in Yebyu and the upper Ye Creek area in Tanintharyi region, and in Kyain Seikgyi and Payathonzu townships in Kayin state, are providing instruction, while other schools jointly operated with the government remain closed, they said.
Members of the NMSP’s central executive committee were not available for comment.
Some schools located in territory controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU), which campaigns for the self-determination of the ethnic Karen people in mountainous Kayin state, also have decided to remain open during the pandemic.
Padao Saw El Htee, secretary of the KNU’s No. 7 Division in Hlaingbwe township, said the schools have remained opened under the guidance of parents.
“We closed the schools jointly operated with government since that is the government’s policy, but schools run by the Karen Education and Culture Department in KNU-controlled territory remained open,” he said. “We didn’t force the decisions. It was up to the parents. They wanted their children to go to school as usual.”
Nyi Rang, spokesman for the United Wa State Army’s liaison office in Lashio in northern Shan state, said most schools in the ethnic army-controlled territory are open.
“Schools in Panghsang are closed these days, but schools in other townships are open as usual,” he said.
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