Keep schools open! — PAGE

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NOVEMBER 11 — The closure of schools until the year end as announced by the Minister of Education, following the extended CMCO is unjustifiable. Echoing renowned local medical experts, Professor Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, Datuk Dr Musa Mohd Nordin, Professor Datuk Dr Lokman Hakim and Dr Lim Kuan Joo’s opinions, the action taken to close schools is drastic and unnecessary.

Therefore, MKN, MoH and MoE must relook into their recommendations and find a way to keep schools open, and evaluate closure of schools holistically.

We are concerned that this is a politically expedient decision to give the outlook and impression that the country is severely affected by Covid-19. Our Covid-19 numbers show that we are not, compared to the rest of the world.

We should be able to control the infectivity with correct data extrapolation of Covid numbers as well as better enforced and stringent SOP especially in schools. We need to study what went wrong with the SOP process which progressed into cluster infections that affected some school students so we can ensure that schools will not be a ground for infection.

Based on the advice of Unicef, WHO and Unesco, where there are sporadic cases or cluster transmission, most schools should remain open and implement Covid-19 prevention and control measures. Local authorities should be able to decide closing off schools in areas experiencing an expansion in the number of clusters that include schools.

As our local experts have pointed out, those cases are isolated in Labuan and parts of Sabah. Why should schools even be closed for states not under CMCO such as Kelantan, Pahang and Perlis? There is no reason for blanket decision making.

We assert that schools remain open with very strict SOP guidelines to be practised.

We are concerned that further closure of schools would have a compounding impact on students who would stand to lose a lot more than just half a year of schooling this year. The digital learning as prescribed and recommended by the Minister of Education is not working. It was MoE’s survey that showed only 9 per cent of students own laptops.

According to Khazanah Research Institute’s research, 77 per cent of students would not be able to learn digitally at home. Urban households are 1.5 times more likely to own a laptop than rural households. A small proportion of B40 households have internet access compared to T20 and M40.

However, even for the B40 in urban areas who may have internet connection and devices, half of them do not have a conducive place to study, according to a recent UNFPA study which revealed that many urban poor school children are at high risk of dropping out of school due to disruption of school.

Not much improvement has been made to online learning since schools reopened in June. As the Minister of Education said, online learning will depend on the capacity and capability of the schools and teachers.

This is a sad case where there is no guarantee, no check and balance or plans to ensure that learning will take place and improvements made. The teachers and schools are left much to their own devices without guidance or training to improve.

Credit is due though, to the good teachers who are able to rise to the occasion and ensure their students keep up learning by whatever means necessary, catering to the students’ own limitations. Kudos to these heroes!

Parents and students want schools to reopen and children back in school with much more stringent SOP and provision of masks to those who cannot afford them.

We would like to know what went terribly wrong with the SOP in schools that showed more than 1,000 school students getting infected with Covid-19 despite having the SOP. What has gone wrong with the implementation and how can we prevent this from happening again, without shutting down schools?

Perhaps bringing all the students back to school at full capacity was a mistake. Social distancing by arranging tables in class may have met the SOP but the social distancing measures cannot be contained and controlled in common areas like corridors, stairways, waiting areas and during recess.

Model 3 of the school reopening SOP, which is the rotation model — for schools with insufficient space to place students either in a single or dual session, the respective schools can determine the appropriate form of rotation.

This model could have worked better as a method of crowd control, by maintaining limited numbers of students who would be allowed in school at any given time. Total number of students in schools should have been taken into consideration, instead of only in-class social distancing based on table arrangement, as if children remain static in school.

Class schedules can be short, focused on core subjects with non-core subject teachers assisting, staggering the classes, alternating days and of course following tight SOP, hygiene care, proper mask wearing, with better social distancing and crowd control measures.

Schools should remain open with teachers at their stations in schools.

The alarming rate of at-risk children who are dropping out of school is also a major concern as they are deprived of face to face class teaching and aren’t able to follow online learning, which makes them completely disinterested in schooling and learning.

In addition, the pressing concerns are the stress levels caused to the students of the exam years, especially the 400,000 SPM batch who have just had the date of SPM postponed yet again, prolonging their stress and pain.

The timing of the postponement is rather ironic for it not to be a suspect of a political decision. The DG of the Ministry of Education appeared in a TV3 interview programme on October 31 and mentioned that SPM would proceed as scheduled on January 6, 2021, only to be superseded days later by a politically appointed minister.

The DG’s recommendation was for the following of SOP for exams that has been tried and tested on the SPM repeat papers which took place in August 2020. This exam’s SOP was used alongside the SOP for exams during a pandemic.

We would recommend that the MoE review the SOP for exams during a pandemic, which was drafted in 2009 for the H1N1 outbreak. We need the Ministry of Health and Majlis Keselamatan Negara to look into the outdated SOP and update it to suit the much more highly contagious Covid-19 virus.

Budget 2021 should have included the necessary expenditure that needs to be spent in schools for SPM exams and beyond, to ensure tight SOP can be met. These are spending on provision of masks, hand sanitisers, thermometers, soaps in toilets, cleaning equipment, floor tapes for social distancing indicators, ample signage and instructions.

Again, we cannot stress how important it is to have children back in school with stringent SOP. We urge that MoE, MoH, MKN review this urgently for the sake of our children’s learning. Online learning has been a grave failure. It has instead widened the gap between the students from the haves and the have-nots more acutely. Our children are not political pawns. We must not allow them to be collateral damage!

* PAGE is an educational lobbyist serving as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders to project a bigger and stronger voice.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer(s) or organisation(s) and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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