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“It’s been almost a year!”: 5 Big Questions for our Education Ministry

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The lost year of 2020. That’s what they’re calling it.

We’ve seen months of disrupted schooling. A decline in learning and diminishing morale. Fed-up families with pandemic fatigue. And as schools closed their doors nationwide, we waded into the uncharted waters of remote learning. 

Has Malaysia been successful in navigating this turn of the tide? We’re not so sure we can answer this definitively. 

Malaysian students only attended school in person for about five to six months in 2020. Photo source: istock.

Our Education Ministry (MoE) is aware of the tumultuous state of our children’s education. They have spoken of future plans to address the negative impact this pandemic has wrought on students nationwide. 

We are hopeful, but we remain cautious. We certainly don’t want this year to end the same way that 2020 did. What we do want, however, are answers from MoE to these 5 burning questions in our mind: 

Calm in the chaos

1. What concrete strategies has MoE come up with to safeguard our children’s learning? 

Forty children in a class. Insufficient safety in classes. No plans for schools. These were some of the frustrations Malaysian mums voiced out recently in a discussion hosted on makchic’s Instagram.

Schools are set to reopen on January 20 for students taking major examinations for the 2020 and 2021 sessions. Other students from areas under the Movement Control Order (MCO 2.0)  and the Conditional and Recovery Movement Control Orders (CMCO and RMCO) are still expected to undergo online classes.

Adapting to home-based learning is not only a struggle for students, but teachers and parents too. Photo source: Bernama.

For many parents, the reopening of schools remained a primary area of concern, with 77% of respondents expressing a preference for MoE to keep schools closed.

Social distancing at public school is very minimal,” one parent commented. “40 kids in 1 class. Kids often remove (their) mask(s) in class.

Others weighed in about fears of overcrowding in classrooms or the difficulties teachers face in enforcing proper safety measures. Some parents also bemoaned a lack of clarity in the directives given.

MoE should have come out with a plan already. It’s been almost a year!” said one frustrated respondent.

What next? 

Families all across Malaysia are in the dark. In countries like the United Kingdom, education ministries have issued COVID-19 safety guidelines and are in close contact with boroughs and schools to ensure parents are updated continuously. What are MoE’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) and how will they intend to ensure compliance with these SOPs? 

Proper measures must be in place before school reopens. Photo source: The Star

We are left with countless questions: 

  • How will social distancing be maintained in class and during breaks?
  • What would happen if a student presents with symptoms? How would their teachers handle such a situation? What would happen if the teachers themselves fall ill? 
  • What support is MoE providing to teachers to help them manage their students? Will there be any form of health and safety training at schools for staff or students?
  • In what way would schools aim to adhere to COVID-19 SOPs? What would happen if a breach occurs? 
  • If a fourth wave hits, what happens next? Is there already a plan in place to navigate this possibility, and if so, what are the details of this plan? 
How will social distancing be maintained in class and during breaks? Photo source: stock.

Time is of the essence

Will MoE identify their areas of priority and ensure that proper measures are in place before schools reopen? These processes would have to be clearly communicated to parents ahead of time to enable families to prepare for the start of the school year.

Come March, it will be a year since the inception of the first MCO. We respectfully believe that MoE has had sufficient time to plan for curriculum transformation and work on concrete and comprehensive teaching solutions to navigate our new reality. And we the rakyat deserve the assurance that our children’s education and their futures will be protected. 

Online learning woes

2.  What measures will MoE be taking to ensure the smooth implementation of online learning throughout Malaysia?  

We recognise and applaud MoE’s efforts to introduce certain platforms (such as DELIMa, TV Pendidikan, CikgooTUBE and the recent introduction of school textbooks in digital formto facilitate learning at home (PdPR) sessions. However, we hope to see further enhancements being made to these resources.

Sadly, many of these programmes tend to be underutilised or limited in their reach. Notably, many students from low-income backgrounds do not have ease of access to the internet or digital devices to learn at home.  

A third of students nationwide have no access to computers. Photo source: istock.

This, too, was an issue ventilated during our Instagram session, with many parents expressing concerns that these students were being left behind in their studies. 

Bridging the digital divide

In a ministry study last year, it was found that around a third of students nationwide had no access to computers. Education Minister Senator Mohd Radzi Md Jidin said 36.9% of students nationwide did not possess any electronic devices. Out of 900,000 students, 6% of students had their own computers, 5.67% had their own tablets, 9% had their own laptops and 46% had smartphones. 

The lack of device ownership is an issue that needs to be urgently addressed. Photo source: Malay Mail

We want to know:

  • What support is being provided to children from B-40 backgrounds or less privileged households?
  • How can MoE ensure that that learning continues for them (particularly if the online learning model is to be maintained)?  

Clear strategies need to be in place to prevent students without access from being sidelined while their peers move forward with online learning.  Further ways of increasing accessibility to device ownership need to be considered by MoE to start narrowing this digital divide.

The role of educators may also need to be relooked. Dr Nuurrianti Jalli, Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Communications and Media Studies of Universiti Teknologi MARA, suggests that educators be allowed to tailor their classes based on the demographic background of the students. Alternative teaching methods, such as recorded short lectures or audio podcasts, should be fully explored. 

Forging a connection 

Veveonah Mosibin went viral for setting up her learning space in a tree to access better internet connection. Photo source: The Star

We also know that poor internet and mobile connectivity across several states in Malaysia (particularly, Sabah and Sarawak) has played a large role in hampering learning efforts. After all, who could forget the case of Sabahan student, Veveonah Mosibin, who posted a video of herself staying up in a tree, just to obtain a better connection for her online exams? We hope that the provisions of the 2021 Budget and MoE’s intended installation of VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) technology next month will indeed ensure higher-speed internet access for all. 

TLC for our teachers

3.  What measures are being taken to assist teachers who are currently dealing with the challenges of teaching with limited resources at hand? 

We fully appreciate the increased burden on the shoulders of our educators who now, more than ever, need the support of their overseeing ministry. The challenges of adapting to an online learning model require MoE’s leadership and direction. Aside from providing training, we would also urge MoE to take measures to safeguard our teachers’ physical and mental health.  

Teachers should be given priority for Covid-19 vaccinations. Photo source: istock

We note with concern recent reports that teachers will not be required to undergo Covid-19 screening before re-entering schools. With a record number of cases in Malaysia, enabling the screening of our teachers would go a long way towards creating an environment of safety within the school community.

Consideration could also be lent to the suggestion that teachers be given priority for Covid-19 vaccinations after frontliners and high-risk groups, in line with UNICEF’s recent recommendation. Aside from keeping our teachers safe, this would also help alleviate parental concerns about sending their children to school.

From teaching to learning

4.  What is MoE’s action plan to innovate our physical and digital classrooms? 

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s this: we cannot stay stagnant, and we cannot allow ourselves to be caught off guard again. While teacher Alexis Wong from Kuala Lumpur believes that it might be the safer option for children to stay at home, she says that this cannot detract from the need for there to be“…a shift from spoon-feeding to teaching independent learning. Our education system really needs to move in that direction.”

We want to see MoE forging ahead in these times with a well-thought-out approach to education transformation in Malaysia.. We are eager for a move away from a teaching culture, to one focused on learning instead. As such, we await the details of MoE’s adaptive and realigned curriculum and transitional programme with anticipation.

Looking to the future 

5.  What lessons can MoE learn from other nations that are navigating this pandemic?

We trust that MoE is paying due attention to educational models in other countries that have been progressing throughout this pandemic.  Some encouraging examples include: 

  • Estonia, where teams of school-based “educational technologists” have been actively working with teachers to assist them in their use of digital resources;

    “Estonia is one of the first countries in the world to classify internet access as a human right.” Photo source: Lionel Derimais/ Getty Images
  • Vietnam, which has strived to integrate digital literacy and transferable skills into their education system; and
  • Singaporewhere Trace Tokens’ distribution through schools enables students to take part in their national contract tracing programme.

Many countries have also been working towards adapting their curriculum and academic calendar to accommodate learning loss in 2020. The introduction of smaller in-person classes, a staggered schedule or reorganised groups applying blended learning has been adopted in Uruguay and the Philippines

“Uruguay took things slowly, bringing back rural and vulnerable kids first, before using alternating schedules and a mixture of in-person and online learning to get the entire student population back to class.” Photo source: Motherly

Support for our vulnerable students 

MoE must also double up their efforts to assist students from low-income households, who are at the greatest risk of disengagement from school and dropping out.

As pointed out by UNICEF in their recent report, a page could perhaps be taken from the books of nations such as:

  • Turkey, for training teachers in providing phone-based psychosocial support;
  • Côte d’Ivoire and Somalia, for restoring access to school meals in a bid to bring children back to school; and 
  • Thailand, whose Equitable Education Fund has increased its school transfers to assist primary school children from low-income families. 
As school reopens in Somalia, so does the school meals programme. Photo source: Anadolu Agency

Rethink the continued closure of schools 

In the long run, we realise that continued school closures cannot be the answer. Studies have shown that to do so would only exacerbate learning iniquities, impede children’s access to nutrition, mental and psychosocial support and increase their vulnerability to social ills such as abuse and child labour.

Our children simply cannot endure another year of educational disruption. The closure of schools should ultimately only be a measure of last resortWe need to prepare our children for their eventual return to school, with MoE’s assurance that preventative and protective measures are firmly in place. 

Our desire for 2021 (and beyond)

As parents, we ask therefore to see a culture of greater clarity and transparency by MoE. 

We long to hear the answers to these questions we have raised.

And we remain hopeful for a better future for our children – and our country.

 

If you have any thoughts or suggestions regarding this issue that you’d like to raise, we’d love to hear from you. Kindly e-mail us at makchic@popdigital.my. 

As a litigation lawyer turned full-time mum, Kimberly Lee finds that arguing court cases never seemed quite as difficult as arguing with an obstinate toddler over carrots. She writes about life, loss, love and everything in between as she explores her greatest adventure yet- motherhood.