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Insights and Analysis

Coronavirus Dispatches, April 29

April 29, 2020

By our staff in Asia

Sukla Dey and daughter Janel, working and learning at home. The schools in Dhaka are closed.

When Schools Close on the World’s Most Populous Continent

By Melody Zavala

With almost all schools closed across Asia, there are ripple effects on our family life, our professional responsibilities, and our children’s education. Melody Zavala spoke to some Asia Foundation colleagues in Asia to get their perspectives on family life and education in the age of Covid-19.

In March, schools closed across Asia, and the number one word on my teammates’ lips is “stressful.” In Bangladesh, says my colleague Sukla, uncertainty reigns. “The pandemic is spreading rapidly throughout the country, not just the capital,” she says, and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has announced that schools will remain closed until September if the coronavirus situation does not improve. In Vietnam, schools have been closed since the lunar new year holiday, which began on January 17, leaving ninth and twelfth graders with limited internet connectivity little opportunity to prepare for high-stakes high school and college entrance exams. My colleague Nhung says the loss of outlets for youthful energy due to Covid-19 has been especially hard.

School systems are scrambling to adapt. Education ministries in Afghanistan, the Philippines, and Nepal are planning online lessons, but they have yet to start. Internet connectivity in Afghanistan is very limited. A colleague in Laos explains that most students there are new to technology and internet service can be both expensive for most people and too slow. Her daughter’s school has switched to just two subjects a day instead of the usual four.

Some governments are turning to television. At the end of March, Bangladesh announced My School at My Home, a daily program of prerecorded lessons on public television station BTV for the country’s 9 million high school students. Laos has launched a program for primary and secondary students that airs every afternoon. Vietnam provides daily programming at specific times for specific grades. But the pivot to television has not been without difficulties. Nhung says students complained that the televised lessons were difficult to grasp, and some schools now supplement them with their own online teaching. Her son now gets both government-sponsored TV lessons and online lessons from his own school, which he finds exhausting.

In capital cities such as Vientiane, Kathmandu, and Kabul, a few private schools are using Zoom and Skype and distributing recorded sessions on flash drives. Teachers send assignments via email and apps such as Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber, Teams, and Telegram. In the Philippines, where some schools are being used as isolation facilities for Covid-19 patients, the Department of Education has launched DepEd Commons, an online platform for public schools. But as my colleague Reynald points out, most public-school students don’t have internet access or their own devices, and “some families, instead of buying internet minutes, may need to buy a kilo of rice for the family to eat.” Nhung is concerned about families in rural Vietnam. “Many do not have adequate infrastructure to support homeschooling for their kids,” she says.

How has your life changed under Covid-19?

Everything has changed. We can’t visit our neighbors, city streets are empty, and poverty is growing.

—Husna, Kabul

Everything is at a standstill. In a word, we are missing the rhythm of life.

—Sukla, Dhaka

Everyone is on lockdown. You can’t find anyone on the streets. Sometimes I feel so fearful looking at the empty street from my terrace.

—Shameera, Kathmandu

Since people can’t visit their neighbors or go to restaurants or cinemas for entertainment, they’re singing more karaoke. My neighbors sometimes sing karaoke all day long.

—Nhung, Vietnam

I feel like we are back to the basic life we had in the 70s and 80s, when nature was the nesting place of children. We are lucky to be living in a province where we have a farm behind our house. After doing their Google Classroom assignments, my kids get to climb trees and pick mangoes.

—Reynald, the Philippines

Schools systems across Asia are also looking ahead to how Covid-19 may affect next year’s classes. The Philippines Department of Education recently polled teachers, students, parents, and other education stakeholders about how prepared they are for alternative school options, along with timelines for reopening, classroom instruction via internet, television or radio, and Saturday classes to make up for delays in reopening.

In the meantime, my teammates described struggles that parents everywhere can relate to. In Laos, a colleague lamented how hard it is to be a full-time employee and a parent right now. Her daughter misses her friends and needs more company than she can provide. And when it comes to helping with her 11th grade homework, it’s hard to recall lessons from decades ago. Shameera, in Kathmandu, worries her 8th grader is missing out on the teamwork. “Even a short time in school increases a child’s ability to deal with friends, teachers, and other people,” she says.

Reynald Ocampo’s son Enzo and daughter Summer take a break after a day of homeschooling.

In Dhaka, Sukla says her daughters’ schools are using apps to send assignments, but the responsibility for teaching falls to her. Getting involved in their lessons has given her a better sense of her children’s strengths and weaknesses, but the lack of peer competition and teacher interaction is causing her 4th and 7th grade daughters to lose interest. “The charm of learning at school is certainly not there at home,” she frets, “but what concerns me more is the emotional effect. My children keep hearing news about Covid-19, and their active imaginations are making them anxious.” To help them articulate their emotions, Sukla turned to COVIBOOK, a story that helps parents and caregivers talk with children about the coronavirus.

On the plus side, Husna, in Afghanistan, is grateful that her children’s teachers are “sharing positive points with students to decrease their anxieties about Covid-19 and guiding them to read more books.” “Being compassionate, cooperative, and caring is very important,” says Reynald.

Almost all of my teammates extolled the improvements in air quality and the environment and spoke of the pleasures of spending more time with their families. “My sons tend to talk to me more than before, now that no friends are around,” says Nhung. She also says sharing a desk with her college-age son has its benefits. “He sometimes asks me for help with his homework, and I ask him for help with technology problems and book translations for our Let’s Read project.”

All of my colleagues mentioned using The Asia Foundation’s Let’s Read digital library and Let’s Read at Home resource site to spend quality time with their children. “My eight-year-old has started picking up small stories from Let’s Read and translating them!” exclaimed Sukla. Reynald, in the Philippines, says his children’s favorite story is Floating Garden, from Cambodia. Husna downloaded the entire STEM book collection for her children. In her free time, Shameera’s daughter uses Let’s Read to practice her mother tongue, Nepal Bahasa, and helps Shameera record stories to share with children across the country on Let’s Read Nepal’s Facebook page.

Our thanks to all the hard-working, multitasking parents everywhere, holding their children close and hoping for the schools to reopen.

Melody Zavala is senior director of The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.


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