Fully open schools, not window-dressing

SEPTEMBER 16 — This is for parents. The kids need school. School, school. To be in their classes and on their playing fields.

Undoubtedly, you are spooked. However, there’s no way around it.

While your protective nature wants to keep them from harm’s way, the very nature of harm in the present and future needs examination beyond the framework of fear. For yourself, your kids and the family.

What constitutes school?

Lessons, homework, lab work and examinations are parts of school, they are vital parts but schooling is more than just its parts.

Which is why the replication of the respective parts remotely, even in earnest, lacks the passion of school.

Passion, as life teaches us, spurs change. Meaning, the efficacy of school for the average student dipped over the last 17 months.

And we have denied them what has been a commonplace in modern society for a hundred years at least -- school life. Rite of passage interrupted.

In the past 17 months, there has been perhaps three months of physical attendance in primary and secondary schools.

Yes, closed schools kept mortality rates low. However, it’s damaged the young’s development cycle.

But they open in October

Students have their temperature taken at Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Methodist (ACS), Ipoh  January 20, 2021. — Picture by Farhan Najib
Students have their temperature taken at Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Methodist (ACS), Ipoh January 20, 2021. — Picture by Farhan Najib

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Initially September. Covid-19 spikes local and global pushed back the date to October 3.

Problem solved, albeit late?

Not quite.

Firstly, the openings are accompanied by various terms and conditions. The phase-status of the respective states affects the move. They alternate weeks to attend school, to retain 50 per cent capacity, and students can choose to just stay at home.

Co-curriculum activities on hold. On that later.

The haphazard nature of the restart reveals pernicious pressures to opt away from physical school at the slightest sign of concern.

How politicians think

Elections decide national policies and politicians are at the apex by virtue of votes.

Translation, ministers worry about elections not people, first.

Decisions on school side caution. Whether education liberates a population is trivial to them as opposed to the public’s ire if a school cluster emerges.

And asking 10-year-olds to mind distance themselves in a playing ground or entering the hall is impossible. Easier to close schools and blame the parents for residential outbreaks.

They also do not want to upset teachers with too many tasks, public school teachers by their sheer number can determine if Bersatu or Umno go top at the next election.

And do not upset the parents, yes, the other voters.

Twelve-year-olds do not vote, guess how important their opinion matters?  

But when it comes to their own children, pandemic, border control and even sentiments do not factor.

Did one ex-minister send his young son to school in France and another deputy concerned about his family in New Zealand go there during a lockdown? 

While our kids in PPRs play out “Lord of the Flies” remakes and learn from the three handphones in a household of six at the mercy of low data coverage.

The minister only cares about the school learning certificate examination, the one where candidates receive marks for writing their names down and repeat the questions in their answer. Yes, that one.

The whole decision to allow the unvaccinated to attend and allow students to continue from home is appeasement. Is one eye on the ballot box.

What if Charlie kills grandpa?

The given and often repeated cautionary tale

Children are less likely to suffer from Covid-19. However, when Charlie comes home from school with the virus from any one of the other students and unintentionally gets grandpa hospitalised. Or worse, dead.

Lives have been lost, it is irresponsible to be fickle about these losses.

Yet, people have carried diseases to each other as long as we’ve walked the earth. The mass vaccination alters the risk factor. Activities, especially schools, must continue even if x-number of people remain exposed.

Charlie can kill grandpa. Charlie can end up killing himself by mixing with others.

However, here’s the counterweight. There are worse things than death. Like not living.

There are no perfect answers but an overemphasis on the health of some without regarding the futures of others because the death of hope occurs in dark places, is exactly why populism threatens the very people presented to benefit.

The limits of remote learning

Technology fosters learning and aids the masses. Yet, advances, infrastructure and resources are not quite there, here in Malaysia most certainly, to compete with physical schooling for now.

Education is the epitome of subjectivity. Therefore, easy to lie about.

There is a teacher-student dynamic which technology has yet to catch up to.

Imagine a class listening to Aesop’s fable about the boy who cried wolf. Why lying for attention eventually comes to haunt society. With a teacher in the centre and students around. The energy is necessary to maximise moral reflections. Otherwise, students are only memorising the lessons which are not internalised.

In classrooms, teachers feed off students as much as students feed off their teachers. The last two years, both have been starved.

Here we go

What should parents champion during the reopen?

Ask for assessments. Various students would have slipped, some or all subjects, and only through in-person interactions can teachers evaluate students’ status. Remedial programmes may be necessary to fill gaps.

The last time Malaysian schools were closed this long was the Second World War. Over 70 years ago, when schools opened, assessed students were streamed into tailored acceleration programmes.

A 15-year-old does not have to be in Form Three by virtue of his age, a test would inform whether he should be in Form Two or even One.

Fix now to avoid arrested developments later.

Tell schools to resume co-curricular activities.

Last week two of my schoolmasters passed away on the same day. One taught history, the other art.

But their lasting impact on the boys — they were good teachers even if Mr Lai gave up on my watercolor brushwork way before my 13th birthday — was in their character, interaction with the students and guiding boys with the hurdles in the case of Mr Thiruchelvam and the Tae Kwon Do Club.    

If the leadership of the country is poor today, why deny the students today of the very activities which shape their attitudes, to be better when they are the leaders. To be brave, to lead others with compassion and stay honest, and to hold the team above self.

It requires more effort in this time of pandemic, but the need for effort from school administrators, teachers and staff members should be a reason to cop out.

Schools should be open properly not as a cosmetic exercise and the risks must be managed not avoided.

Parents step up, we’ve been engulfed by fear in a conversation about education. Public schools are about hope above all. The kids need school. 

Selamat Hari Malaysia!

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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