As 2020 school year draws to a close, experts weigh in on Covid-19 pandemic's impact on Malaysian children

Sekolah Kebangsaan Pandan Perdana students on their first day back at school in Kuala Lumpur July 22, 2020. — Picture by Hari Anggara
Sekolah Kebangsaan Pandan Perdana students on their first day back at school in Kuala Lumpur July 22, 2020. — Picture by Hari Anggara

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 20 —  As the 2020 school year drew to a close on November 9, parents and teachers could not help but reflect on how much the Covid-19 pandemic has affected Malaysian schoolchildren’s daily lives and studies.

On the last day of school, a primary school teacher in Seremban, affectionately known as Cikgu Ila, posted this message on her Year One pupils parents’ WhatsApp group: “I’ve already packed your children’s books. Later I’ll let u know when to come to the school to collect them.

“I feel sad as I go about clearing the classroom. Who could guess 2020 would end like this. We are forced to part without any speech or message for the pupils. After this (next year), the children will go to the second year.”

She also attached some photographs of the deserted classroom. Her pupils’ books, neatly packed and arranged on their desks, were a reminder of their rather brief stint in schools this year.

Some of the parents were moved to tears by her message and photos.

“Sad to see Cikgu packing up our children’s books. They only managed to go to school for a few months. They didn’t even have the chance to get to know their classmates better,” said one parent.

“Sad our children did not get to know each other or the chance to explore Year One. It has been an ordeal for all of us,” said another parent.

Limited social interactions

The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly impacted children’s lives and disrupted their daily activities.

Malaysian schoolchildren, for example, were barely in school for three months when schools were shuttered following the enforcement of the movement control order on March 18.

Although schools reopened in the middle of the year, the children returned to a totally different environment at school due to the need for them to wear a mask and practice physical distancing, as well as eat at their own desk during break.

Are children at risk of developing mental and emotional issues in view of the new norms that are forced on them?

Child psychologist Dr Noor Aishah Rosli acknowledged that the Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on children in terms of their emotional, cognitive and behavioural aspects.

Children, particularly those aged between four and 11, by nature are cheerful and love to mingle and play with their friends; however, the Covid-19 pandemic drastically limited their interactions, she told Bernama.

“They could no longer go out and play with their friends at the playground or go to shopping malls with their parents. They have to stay at home as it is the safest place for them.

“Besides these social changes, some children feel stressed and fearful when their family members are obsessed with using sanitiser and face mask and paranoid about getting infected by the virus.

“We also have to take into consideration children who come from different backgrounds... some of them may be living in big houses but there are also those who live in congested dwellings with their big families. All these factors can influence their emotions, attitude and behaviour,” said Dr Noor Aishah, who is also a senior lecturer at Universiti Malaya’s Department of Educational Psychology and Counselling.

At a time when even adults are reeling from the effects of the pandemic, children need all the moral support they can get from their parents to remain motivated and keep themselves up-to-date with their studies and adapt to the new normal way of life.

Illiteracy

Niena Najwa Mohd Rashid, a clinical psychologist at Pusat Pakar Psikologi Jiwadamai in Shah Alam, said among the challenges children may face are learning-related problems including illiteracy as this year’s limited formal schooling session has left syllabuses uncompleted.

“Learning online in an informal setting at home can affect their concentration and focus. Furthermore, not all children have access to Internet facilities, computers and printers,” she said.

She said in this respect, the government should consider providing free Internet access or setting up Internet centres to ensure that children from needy communities are not left behind in their studies as a result of the pandemic.

According to the UNICEF Data Hub on the website, at least one-third of the world’s schoolchildren — 463 million children globally — were unable to access remote learning when the Covid-19 pandemic forced schools to close.

The actual number of students who cannot be reached during the pandemic is likely significantly higher than this estimate. In many situations, despite remote learning policies and the presence of the necessary technology at home, children may be unable to learn due to skills gaps among their teachers or a lack of parental support.

Stress

Dr Noor Aishah, meanwhile, said parents play a crucial role in monitoring the academic progress of their children whose classes are being conducted online.

She said with the experience they had gained during the initial phases of the MCO, they are now probably better prepared mentally and have the necessary devices to facilitate the e-learning process.

She, however, advised parents not to feel too stressed if they are not able to follow the online sessions with their children.

“It’s not easy for parents to supervise their children, especially if they are working from home and have a number of children whose online classes they have to manage.

“We are worried that all those responsibilities may cause them stress which will have an adverse effect on their emotional state which, in turn, will impact their children,” she explained.

Describing the learning process as a long and continuous one, Dr Noor Aishah said parents can on their own initiative teach their children whenever they have the time. This will not only forge closer ties but also enable them to identify and rectify any weakness in their children.

“For example, if your child who is in Year One can’t read properly, then just focus on teaching him or her to read well,” she added. — Bernama

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