[Disclaimer: This piece was written before the recent announcement about the Klang Valley and Melaka moving into Phase 3 of the National Recovery Plan. While we await further announcements from the Education Ministry regarding the re-opening of schools, the following article reflects the many concerns that still need to be addressed.]
Towards the end of 2020, I vividly remember how I waited in anticipation for the start of the new school year. Like many children, my 6-year-old was deprived of a normal end to his pre-school years, missing out many key events we had looked forward to. His last sports day. His annual concert. His graduation at kindergarten. We put that chapter behind us and prepared ourselves for the new school year instead.
After seemingly endless months of home-based teaching and learning (PdPR), our children returned to school by March 2021. All seemed well; but not for long. On 6th May 2021, schools in Selangor and the Federal Territory were ordered to close, followed soon by a blanket closure of schools nationwide as the country saw a surge in the number of positive infections.
Shut out of schools
To date, students have been shut out of school for in-person learning for a consecutive period of more than 3 months and counting. Earlier plans to reopen schools in September 2021 were shelved and a new tentative date has been set for the reopening on 3rd October 2021. Whether schools will re-open this year, as planned, is anyone’s guess. All told, by the end of September 2021, children would have lost out on 7 months of learning at school. This, coupled with the prolonged school closure in 2020, means that children have lost out on at least 12 months of school in the last 2 years.
If the past few tumultuous months have taught us one thing, it’s this: we urgently need a sustainable plan in regards to our children’s education. This “stop/start” schooling mode we have been operating under simply cannot continue. We cannot afford to destablise if our country goes into lockdown again. The toll that this has, and will continue, to take on our children is far too grievous.
Buka Sekolah Kami, a campaign run and endorsed by educators, medical professionals and like-minded parents, has been advocating for the reopening of schools to be prioritised in the belief that the cost of school closures outweigh its benefits.
Recognising schools as essential
The current plans for the reopening of schools is hinged upon the phases of the National Recovery Plan. What this means is that while some children may return to school in October, the vast majority who reside in states still in Phase 1 and 2 will continue with online learning. The lack of recognition of schools as essential remains apparent, as the economic and tourism sector has seen a revival before schools have reopened. There is therefore an urgent need to prioritise education through the reopening of all schools in a safe way.
Making a choice and challenging fear
Like many, I want my children to return to school. I’m also aware that there are many (perhaps even the majority) who are still averse to physical schooling. I am unqualified to judge on who is right and wrong. I firmly believe, however, that each family should have the right to choose. The viability of in-person classroom teaching running parallel with online teaching should be explored. With today’s technology, such a proposal should not be unfeasible.
The reporting of raw un-nuanced data of Covid infections and mortalities amongst children only helps to stoke rather than assuage fear. In Malaysia, 15 (0.52%) out of the 2,867 deaths reported as at 1st June 2021, occurred among children below 18 years and a rough estimate of deaths due to Covid-19 among those below 18 years is about 2 in 1 million. 60% of the 15 children who died from Covid-19 had some form of underlying condition (mainly, cancer) and of the 15 children, 26.67% were foreigners or stateless children.
It is an undisputed fact that children continue to be at risk from contracting this dreadful disease. Every life is precious, more so the lives of young children and every young life lost is a tragedy. However, Malaysians are smart enough to make informed choices. With balanced reporting, we can make better decisions for ourselves and our children. It is hoped that over time, this would help to dampen the paranoia and fear.
Ensuring safeguards in place
We must also resist partaking of a blame culture. If a decision is made to lift the blanket closure of schools, each family can make its choice and then not blame anyone, least of all the government. There are no risk-less options in life. Infection is a possibility when schools reopen but it is a calculated risk we must be prepared to take for the common good. With adequate safeguards in place, schools are unlikely to be hotspots for transmission.
Pandemic-raised young children have been conditioned into an alternative (and frankly, scary) reality: that that most innocent and natural of early childhood activities, playing with friends, is unsafe. Good parents are role models for their children. But when good (and well-intentioned) parents remain in the grip of fear, such fear spills over to the child. Children should instead be encouraged to play outdoors in properly ventilated spaces where it is safer, particularly in areas where community transmission is low.
Studies have shown that improved ventilation has been associated with a lower transmission of the virus. In a Malaysian-school setting, this may be easily achieved by keeping doors and windows open and using fans for improved circulation. The virus is known to spread much less outdoors. Therefore, outdoor classrooms may also be worth considering where sufficient shade is available to protect children from the hot weather.
The existing model proposed for reopening aims to reduce density in schools by only permitting attendance at 50% capacity with each group to attend school on a weekly basis. While this is a step in the right direction, efforts need to be ramped up to ensure that all students may attend school at the same time.
Malaysia has now inoculated more than 80% of its adult population. The vaccine has shown to be effective in preventing serious outcomes when breakthrough infections occur. The risk to children may therefore be mitigated if schools ensure that all teachers and support staff who are present in school are vaccinated.
Ending the disruption
The reopening of schools will undoubtedly be met with trepidation. We can, however, formulate policies and guidelines to manage a safe return to school by drawing on examples from other countries as ultimately, we all want the same thing: to end the disruption to our children’s education and protect their well-being.
Research has shown that the impact of prolonged school closure on children is significant. Little meaningful education is gained by children staring at a screen for hours daily, particularly in large classrooms sizes. Children thrive on structure and routine, and virtual learning is no substitute to school. It is only by attending school that these fundamental needs can be met.
Virtual schooling also imposes a heavy burden on parents. To ensure that children don’t fall behind, parents are effectively taking on the role of co-teacher, while concurrently juggling work commitments. Many families are also left to deal with a childcare crisis (as well as the mental and psychological strain of being homebound).
The impact on our B40 communities
The most devastating impact of school closure is on the poor. Access to education through virtual schooling is available to children from middle-class homes who can afford devices for remote learning. Not so for the poor. Many in the rural and in the B40 communities lack internet access or the means to provide such devices to their children thereby missing out on education altogether.
For children from these communities in particular, prolonged school closures mean a lot more than just missed schooling. There is also the lost rapport with a teacher who might be a mentor/counsellor. Involvement in sports and healthy extra-curricular activities, which only the school environment provides for these children, will also be sorely missed.
The upshot is a surge in non-Covid-related physiological ailments and, even worse, an upsurge in mental illness, not to mention other tragic outcomes: physical and sexual abuse, substance abuse, and in extreme cases, even suicides. It would be sadly ironic if future studies unveil a bitter truth: that the collateral damage in children’s lives due to school closures far outweighed the damage wreaked by the virus.
The remedy, hindsight would then show, would have been far worse than the disease.
by Tanya Marie Lopez.
Tanya is a working professional, wife and mother of 2 who believes that schools need to reopen, safely and immediately. She supports the Buka Sekolah Kami campaign.