KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 30 — The number of students from many of Klang Valley’s poor communities returning to the classroom is dropping at an alarming rate as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak’s disruption of school, according to a new study released today.
Many parents also expressed concern that their children have lost interest in school even after the government began lifting movement restrictions and reopened educational institutions, the same study found.
The findings followed the second round of the “Family On Edge” survey jointly commissioned by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), which aimed to evaluate the socioe-conomic state of households in the low-cost flats around Klang Valley post-movement control order, held between May and September.
The two international agencies said areas like education and mental health are now among new challenges facing policymakers as they battle the pandemic, now seen as one of the worst humanitarian and economic crises in human history.
“New challenges are emerging especially on education and mental health,” UNPF and Unicef said in its executive summary of the report.
“Children have returned to school, yet 7 per cent of upper secondary-age children (9 per cent for boys) in these families reported not returning to school,” it added.
Compounding the problem is the rate of parents reporting their children to have lost interest in education, which they suggested was caused by the movement control order (MCO).
One of five respondents had said their children are either demotivated and are disinterested in continuing school. This incidence was found to be higher among children from female-headed households, at a rate of one of four.
Among others, cost was found to be the biggest single factor contributing to the disenfranchisement, with a majority of families reported difficulties in meeting the cost associated with school attendance, especially among female-headed households.
One in two respondents said they faced difficulties in paying for tuition fees, while 50 per cent found it difficult to provide pocket money and almost one fifth said they struggle to pay for transportation fees.
Can’t afford face masks
The study also found nearly a third of parents having difficulty buying their children face masks, at the time of the survey were sold at just RM1.50 each.
The government only recently lowered the price ceiling by half to 70 sen.
Schools were told to close between March and May as part of government measures to stem the spread of the deadly coronavirus, which has infected close to 20,000 people, killed hundreds, and devastated the economy.
Parents were then encouraged to take learning online as the four-month lockdown kept students at home, although whether or not official web-based teaching modules were already available at the time is unclear.
And for the city’s low cost flat dwellers, online education appeared to be a luxury most cannot afford.
UNFPA and Unicef said its survey found eight out of ten students come from households with no computers or laptops, while nine of ten only had smartphones as their learning devices.
Online education was also found to be unpopular among parents, with two-thirds saying they preferred their children be in school.
“Among those who do not prefer online learning for their children, almost half stated due to a limited space to study. Three in five said it is because of either lack of internet access or no computer, laptop, tablet,” the report said.
Public flats in the Klang Valley have among the highest concentrations of poverty incidence in Malaysia, which government officials claim have reduced over the decades although more independent economists have cast doubts over the statistics.
The “Family On The Edge” series of studies undertaken by DM Analytics, a public policy outfit, said there are some 61,000 urban households living in dire conditions, with up to half of its main providers found to be living below the absolute poverty line as of September, significantly higher than last year.
Covid-19, mental health and domestic violence
All this has had a mental health toll on the families, with almost a fifth reporting feeling depressed. The number was found to be much higher among female-headed households.
As a result, domestic violence among low cost flat dwellers increased.
Researchers said they found evidence to suggest a link between the pandemic’s economic effects and physical and psychosocial violence against women and children at home, as socio-economic strain takes a toll on mental health.
“Although the number of respondents reporting more severe forms of psychosocial distress
(emotional instability, uncontrollable behaviour and inability to concentrate) was lower, the wellbeing risks to parents, and subsequently children, is very significant,” researchers said.
“Continued financial insecurity was reported as a key driver of this situation, with evidence emerging of increased tensions between spouses and between carers of children in some households.”
The findings all point to the need for urgent intervention, UNFPA and Unicef said, as they called for a comprehensive and effective social policy framework.
Among recommendations made in the report were measures to increase income generating opportunities and beefing up psychosocial support, policies they urged to be incorporated in the 12th Malaysia Plan and next year’s federal budget.