Hualien, May 19 (CNA) The suspension of in-person classes in Taiwan has led a number of government officials, teachers and parents groups to voice concern about the plight of rural and low-income students who are most likely to be affected by the shift to remote learning.
At a press conference Tuesday, Education Minister Pan Wen-chung (潘文忠) announced that in-person school classes at all levels, as well as after-school day care and cram schools, would be suspended starting Wednesday through May 28 to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Following the announcement, the National Federation of Teachers Unions called on the government to allow schools to adopt a "flexible" approach to the closures, as not all students are equipped for the move to remote learning.
Meanwhile, the National Alliance of Presidents of Parents Associations urged the Ministry of Education (MOE) to provide an alternative 14-day at-home curriculum for students, and to set up special day-care centers to help single-parent and low-income families.
In response to the concerns, MOE Chief Secretary Liao Hsing-kuo (廖興國) said the ministry was distributing 32,000 15-day pre-paid internet cards, and students without computers at home would be allowed to borrow them from their schools.
Another problem is school lunches, as many low-income families are accustomed to their children's schools providing the meal for free, and will struggle with the economic impact of the closures.
On that issue, Pan said the MOE has asked schools nationwide to offer meal assistance for students who need it, such as by distributing vouchers students can use to pick up free meals on campus or at area convenience stores.
In a more local example, the governments of the predominantly rural Hualien and Taitung counties on the east coast announced Tuesday that schools will continue to offer meal services, while classes will be held via livestream or pre-recorded videos.
Still, the response of many local residents illustrated the challenges the governments face in reaching students in remote communities while in-person classes are suspended.
Ms. Ting (丁), a mother of children in second-grade and kindergarten in the Indigenous Olalip Village in Hualien's Ruisui Township, said the suspension of in-person classes would force parents to take unpaid leave from their jobs, affecting their household income.
"The classes are already small in rural schools, and students are able to maintain social distancing. I think it's improper for this issue to be thrown to parents to deal with," she said.
Another parent in a community off Hualien County Road No. 193, who declined to be named, said her fourth- and sixth-grade children were able to borrow tablet computers, but their home did not have an internet connection, including the "i-tribe" wireless broadband service the government provides to many Indigenous communities.
Wu Yu-cheng (伍玉成), principal of Yongfeng Elementary School in Hualien County, said his school had previously conducted drills for the shift to remote learning, and that teachers would be visiting students' homes on Wednesday to make sure they were able to connect to the online classes.
"In cases where the parents or caregivers of young children are really unable to be at home, we'll either ask teachers to accompany them at home or have the children return to school," he said.