Keeping children in school in the aftermath of COVID-19

With most businesses and all schools closed to prevent the spread of the virus, families throughout Vietnam have felt the effects of the pandemic in their pockets. Schools are now reopening, but the economic hardship and months away from the classroom have put many children at high risk of dropping out of school. This is how Blue Dragon works to prevent that from happening.

When children across Vietnam enjoyed their Lunar New Year school break in January, nobody imagined three months would pass until they could return to their classrooms again. Temporarily closing down all schools and universities was one of Vietnam’s first measures to contain the spread of coronavirus. Since then, businesses have closed and parents have lost their jobs; and many teens have started working in informal jobs, such as construction, to help their families make ends meet. 

With the epidemic now under control and classes starting to resume, Blue Dragon is beginning to learn about students who haven’t returned to school, particularly in poor rural areas.

Two of these areas are the northern provinces of Dien Bien and Ha Giang, where many students from remote ethnic community villages attend boarding schools. Without the free meals provided there, the long school break has meant many families have been struggling to feed their children. As a result, these students are more likely to quit school to try and make a living in farming or construction. 

In Dien Bien and Ha Giang, as well as in central Hue province, most schools reopened in the first week of May. And although it is still early to make an accurate assessment, the first data we are seeing from schools gives reason for concern.

In northern Ha Giang province, for instance, Blue Dragon has been supporting 165 students who live in extreme poverty. Of these, 50 have not returned to school in this first week. 

“We still need to wait a bit to have data that correctly reflects the situation,” explains Nam Xuan Pham, who manages Blue Dragon’s project in the area. Some students may be absent because of a lack of transportation in isolated areas, and other teens could be helping their families with farming tasks but still intend to go back to class. “We have already begun to investigate these cases,” he says. 

These 165 children are at a particularly high risk of quitting school either because they are vulnerable to human trafficking, or because of their financial situation, or both; but there are many more students in these three provinces who may also face this risk. So how does Blue Dragon identify these children to ensure all of them receive an education? 

Thorough coordination to identify children at risk

In Dien Bien and Ha Giang provinces, Blue Dragon works closely with secondary and high schools in areas considered hotspots for human trafficking. In these cases, there is a warning system in place: social workers are notified directly by the schools when a child stops attending lessons or if there’s a suspicion a student is being groomed by human traffickers. 

The coronavirus crisis, however, has affected many other families in these provinces who were already poor or near-poor. In these households, the breadwinners work mostly in manual labour that cannot be done remotely, and so these parents haven’t been able to earn an income during the social isolation period. And a substantial number of them no longer have a job to return to now the restrictions have been lifted. These circumstances make their children more likely to quit school. 

In order to identify these children at risk, Blue Dragon’s warning system will now be expanded from the schools with whom we work in more vulnerable communes to a district level.

To achieve this, Blue Dragon liaises with the Department of Education in key districts. As classes resume, the Department will notify Blue Dragon about the students who haven’t returned. That way, Blue Dragon will be able to work with the schools to find out the reasons behind the child’s absence, offer support and raise the alarm if we suspect trafficking or exploitation.

Once the absent children have been identified, “it is crucial that we conduct home visits to verify if they have indeed dropped out,” says Thuy Thu Nguyen, Blue Dragon’s program manager in Dien Bien. This task is particularly challenging in the mountainous northern provinces, where houses tend to be isolated and scattered across steep, winding roads and dirt paths. Visiting all families would take Blue Dragon a long time, but the urgency of the situation demands a swift response.

That is why Blue Dragon coordinates with teachers in these areas. “They know which students haven’t gone back to class, so we support them with transport and expenses, so they can visit the families and find out about their situation,” says Nam. 

Listening, understanding and tailoring solutions

With the reports we receive from teachers, Blue Dragon is able to assess the circumstances of each family. “Once we have confirmation that a student plans to stop studying, we talk to the family to identify the real reason why the child hasn’t returned to school and offer a solution based on their needs,” says Thuy. An important part of these conversations is listening to the families’ concerns, as well as emphasizing the importance of education. 

When the children stop attending school due to financial struggles, Blue Dragon can provide emergency food aid, as well as some support to help with essential expenses and school fees.

In some cases, kids leave for big cities to try and find jobs, which commonly turn out to be exploitative. That was the case of three teenage survivors of human trafficking who Blue Dragon had been supporting. The teenagers took jobs in construction and hospitality in their provincial capital, but after three months of work, none of them received any payment. “When this happens, we work closely with the provincial authorities to rescue the child and support the family,” explains Blue Dragon’s coordinator in Hue, where children have traditionally migrated to Ho Chi Minh City in search of ways to make a living. 

When there is reason to believe a child may have been trafficked, Blue Dragon will immediately contact the police and, if necessary, conduct a rescue operation to bring them home. 

Blue Dragon believes education is the most powerful tool to break out of poverty, and essential to keep children safe from human trafficking. We will continue to monitor and assist all families who need support to make sure children across Vietnam remain in school. You too can ensure kids stay in school by donating to Blue Dragon’s Emergency Appeal here.

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