Asia

Concerns as Malaysia schools set to reopen

Eleven-year-old Hakim has not gone to school since it was closed in October last year after a third wave of Covid-19 hit Malaysia.

Now, he spends his days doing household chores in his family’s two-bedroom flat in Kuala Lumpur.

“We can’t afford to buy a new smartphone, let alone a tablet. I wish we could get just a cheap tablet so he can join the online classes at his school,” his mother Liana Malik told The Straits Times.

“He misses school and wants to be a good student as he feels it is a chance to improve our lives. But he finds it hard to catch up and revise on his own, and we don’t have a printer to print out worksheets sent by the teacher,” said the 44-year-old hotel worker.

Last Saturday, Malaysia announced that government schools will reopen as scheduled on Jan 20, despite new Covid-19 infections staying stubbornly high. The number of daily cases hit a new record of 3,027 cases yesterday.

Parents and experts have differing views on whether students should return to classrooms – some fear outbreaks while others welcome a return to in-person learning, citing a lack of access to online learning and poor mental health.

Housewife Julia Muhamad, 40, who is from Selangor, said: “I really want my kids to go back to school because they need social interaction. However, as a parent, I am not without worries. But we can’t live in fear forever and we need to try to resume a new normal life somehow.”

On the other hand, housewife Rina Razali, 40, prefers to keep her children at home. “It feels a bit futile. (If) school reopens and… there’s a case of someone with Covid-19, then the school will have a total shutdown, with the (parents) worrying sick if their kids may have been infected as well.”

The other worry is that reopening schools may further strain public hospital resources if there are outbreaks. Earlier this month, the Health Ministry said it was mulling over home quarantine for asymptomatic cases as hospitals were dealing with a high number of cases.

Dr Sazaly Abu Bakar, a professor and director of the Tropical Infectious Diseases Research and Education Centre at Universiti Malaya, said: “Before schools open, they should first do random samplings of children from different parts of the country or states to determine the community transmission rates.

“If it is very low to low, perhaps then they can allow reopening, making sure of full compliance with the preventive measures.”

Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud, an epidemiologist at Universiti Malaya, said: “There should be a proper assessment – where schools and kindergartens can open and where they cannot, and where online learning needs to continue.”

He noted there has been a “lost generation” this past year in terms of schooling, and the level of education received by children in Malaysia has been unequal.

3,027

The number of daily Covid-19 cases in Malaysia yesterday.

“Some children have managed to receive some online instruction, while there are many others who have not due to a lack of devices and patchy Internet access, as well as a lack of online material suitable for the national curriculum.

“Perhaps there should be a scheme to loan laptops or tablets to schoolchildren who do not have such devices and to ensure that low-income families get the Internet support they need,” he said.

Mr Harry Tan, secretary-general of the National Union of the Teaching Profession, said parents and teachers need to work together to help students keep up with their studies, especially those who lack the means to follow lessons online.

“They could personally hand over learning materials, send recorded videos or even do correspondence learning,” he was quoted as saying by The Star yesterday. “Teachers are a creative lot, and they adapted pretty quickly as they understood the need for change.”

The last time schools reopened, in June, more than 700 students contracted the virus. Schools were ordered to close from October as more districts were hit by a resurgence of Covid-19 infections, stemming from the statewide polls in Sabah in September.

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