Contradictheory: So, how safe are Malaysia's newly re-opened schools?


Primary schoolchildren lining up while maintaining physical distancing to enter their school compound in George Town on the first day of school on March 1, 2021. - LIM BENG TATT/The Star

So the kids began going back to school on March 1, 2021, whatever the Covid-19 colour of your state or area. Hopefully, parents all over Malaysia are spending extra time teaching children about adhering to the three Ws and avoiding the three Cs. (Quick reminder, that’s “Wash your hands”, “Wear a mask”, “Warn others”, while avoiding “Crowded places”, “Confined spaces”, and “Close conversation”.)

Clearly, the government believes it is safe to send children back to physical classes again even though schools are usually crowded and confined spaces. While parents might be questioning the decision, my take on the issue is: “What are we doing as a community to agree how best to keep people safe?”

Take, for example, mask-wearing. A Malaysian school published on Instagram a photo of a classroom after schools reopened – everybody was wearing a mask except the teacher. The obvious question is, “Does the teacher need to wear a mask at all times when in school?” What is safe behaviour?

The Education Ministry’s Guidelines for School Operations during the New Normal (published in February 2021) say that schools must make sure that all students, teachers and staff always wear masks when in school. This is backed up by the SOP published by the National Security Council that says “always wear masks”.

However, what caused some confusion was that last year, the same school I mentioned above informed parents that students don’t have to wear masks all the time if it made them uncomfortable. On top of that, last month, the school informed parents that students who are immunocompromised must wear masks all the time. This implies it might not be always necessary for all students – and by extension, teachers – to wear masks.

Thankfully, at least Malaysian government agencies are in agreement with one another (“wear a mask”), but the question as a whole is not something even experts worldwide agree on. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “strongly encourages” mask use in schools, which implies it’s not mandatory. Britain is more relaxed: They allow primary school students to not wear masks, and give teachers some leeway to be unmasked if they are able to maintain a distance of at least 1m from others.

This sort of inconsistency might give some people the idea that it might not matter whether you wear a mask or not. But it does matter, and you have to understand that the option to not wear a mask is an exception rather than a rule. It’s quite obvious when you read the SOP documents in their full context.

This is a bit like the rule allowing people to dine in restaurants again. Being in a closed room without masks is clearly an increased risk. It is clearly better to not go to restaurants if you don’t need to. But some people take restaurants reopening as an indication that the government believes it’s “safe” to eat in restaurants when that clearly cannot be the case, especially in red zones where there is a high number of local cases. Still, I see people eating in restaurants without a care, and restaurant owners clearly practising a form of caveat emptor when it comes to Covid-19.

What people forget is that if you are trying to reduce virus transmission, you should assume that everybody you meet is potentially infectious and take appropriate precautions. At the risk of repeating myself, avoid close conversation and crowded and confined spaces while wearing a mask, wash your hands, and give appropriate warning when necessary. I consider “warn” to be “remind each other of risk”. For example, it should be OK to tell somebody you are in a queue with to step back if they are too close.

But warning only works if we are able to converse with each other. It was with this thought in mind that I asked the school’s parent- teacher association to clarify if the school would alert parents if students or staff members were Covid-19 positive or have been in close contact with someone who is. Part of the reason for this is because Education Ministry guidelines are silent on this, which means we need to decide what is right for us. (As of writing this, there has been no answer yet from the association.)

That this kind of collaboration is helpful is supported by CDC advice which says schools should share information, such as the number of cases and absenteeism, as well as “number of visits to health centers by students, teachers, and other staff”, which in turn will help schools come up with “transparent criteria for when the school will suspend in-person learning”.

In fact, it is this “transparent criteria” that we should all be working towards, not only because it makes complete sense to be prepared for emergencies but also because it is clearly a better alternative than relying on the WhatsApp grapevine. Inconsistent rules and inconsiderate rumours just cause chaos.

Right now, clarification only happens after confusion reigns. Take for example the question whether crossing from Kuala Lumpur into Selan-gor and Putrajaya is considered “crossing state borders”. Many highlighted an answer given last May by the Malaysian Government Call Centre that said that all three areas are defined as the Klang Valley and travelling between them is not crossing state borders. However, after this information spread online, the government then clarified that going into Putrajaya at the moment would require police permission.

So, is it safe to go back to schools? You might think it must be, otherwise why would the government reopen them? But history shows that minds and policies can change. So all I can do is to say, let’s work together to be safe, preferably by following the three Ws and avoiding the three Cs.


In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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