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American teacher in Thailand: 'An attitude of unity' with masks helps schools return amid COVID-19

Thailand was one of the first countries outside China to record a coronavirus infection.

Thailand was one of the first countries outside China to record a coronavirus infection.

Yet, somehow the country’s COVID-19 numbers show a nation that has largely avoided becoming overrun by the disease.

The latest figures from Johns Hopkins University show the country has recorded – with limited testing - fewer than 3,500 coronavirus infections and just 58 deaths.

Recent COVID-19 cases, reported there within the last week, were associated with people who had left the country and returned, various news outlets reported.

Children returned to the classroom there more than a month ago.

Chief Investigative Reporter Bennett Haeberle talked to his brother-in-law, Robert Grote, about how the classroom environment has changed.

Grote has lived in Bangkok, Thailand for the past five years. He currently teaches math to school children and tutors both young adults and adults in English.

“When it first spread from China to Thailand we were very concerned,” Grote said.

Thailand is a huge tourist destination – especially for Chinese tourists – who often visit Thailand to take in its beautiful beaches and temples.

Grote said the secret to Thailand’s supposed success against COVID-19 remains somewhat of a mystery.

But his theories include that the Thai people are used to wearing masks. People often bow when greeting each other rather than shake hands.

Heavy pollution and poor air quality – tied to PM 2.5 - have made mask wearing commonplace, he said.

“I think it just became normal – a normal behavior to wear masks prior to this event,” Grote said.

He also said it’s not atypical for him to have his temperature checked before he enters a grocery store or convenience store.

He also rides the local public train system – known as the BTS – where passengers are reminded to wear their masks and even refrain from talking.

“The BTS is silent, no one is fighting the rule,” he said.

Grote said he thinks the Thai people and Thai culture can be credited with whatever success has helped them avoid being ravaged by COVID-19.

He said school children returned to class there in July – after delaying the re-start of school in May. It’s been difficult as a teacher. He has had to re-think lesson plans and teaching strategies.

There are no more group projects because of social distancing requirements.

He said daily temperature checks are common, so too are socially distant desks and cafeteria seats with protective barriers between each student.

“The best way that I could summarize the attitude is one of unity that students and people all share together. It’s this one common enemy that we are fighting and that everyone follows the rules.”

In addition to daily temperature checks, socially distant desks and fewer group activities, Grote says he also steps into bins of sanitizing solution when he enters his school.

He says there’s also no public discourse over mask-wearing.

“One of the things that I told my students was that we had to work together but separately,” Grote said.

He recently gave his elementary students an assignment – he was supposed to be teaching them about fractions – but instead he gave them something else:

“I wanted them to show us videos in the ways in which we can slow the spread of coronavirus and also the lengths that Thailand is going through to slow the spread of the virus even while we have had very few local transmissions.

The videos his students sent back to him show the importance of temperature checks or hand sanitizers or making masks at home.

This non-math assignment may have unintentionally taught his students about fractions after all –– that a country working together as one unified whole is more valuable than one divided into parts.

It’s a sentiment shared by a 16-year old student who Grote tutors.

Grote read a portion of what he said wrote down about his country’s response to COVID-19:

“If we make short-term sacrifices then we will be free from the clutches of the virus… if people don’t conform, everything will be back to where it was. This is a pivotal world crisis, everyone must have mutual respect for each other and we will get through this crisis together.”

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