THERE’S a mix of anticipation and apprehension in the air as teachers and students prepare to return to schools in less than a month.
As cases continue to remain high, and the Delta variant posing serious concerns, the Education Ministry is working on an updated standard operating procedure (SOP) for schools to adhere to.
In a social media post on Friday, Education Minister Datuk Dr Radzi Jidin said he had visited schools in Perlis to meet with parent-teacher associations, teachers, principals and headmasters to listen to their views, before finalising a comprehensive framework for the opening and operation of schools.
Earlier he said various aspects of school operations are being looked into, such as the vaccination data of teachers, school support staff and implementation group members (Anggota Kumpulan Pelaksana).
A comprehensive plan has been drawn up, taking into account various parties’ views, including those of the Health Ministry and the National Security Council, and engagement sessions with relevant parties on the matter will continue, he posted on Wednesday.
In April, he said detailed data mapping and plans on how to further tighten the existing SOP are being conducted.With schools reopening in stages from Oct 3, some 190,212 Form Five students in Phases Two and Three states of the National Recovery Plan are set to return for face-to-face learning (see map for state distribution of Form Five students).
The new SOP, Universiti Putra Malaysia consultant clinical microbiologist and Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences dean Prof Dr Zamberi Sekawi said, must be released soon.He said this is because it is unlikely that everyone will be vaccinated by next month and the SOP must take into account those who are not vaccinated.
“The Delta variant is airborne. By being in an enclosed space with poor ventilation, its chances of spreading is higher so the SOP and schools themselves should look into keeping windows and doors opened at all times.“In some countries, the local education authorities and district offices have the autonomy to draw up the SOP for schools, based on the daily Covid-19 cases affecting the area.
“They also look into the vaccination rate of people within that area to gauge whether schools should open. Malaysia should look into adopting this approach too,” he told StarEdu.
The most urgent and pressing aim right now, he said, is to get everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated.
The ministry, he said, should make it clear on whether it is mandatory for teachers to get vaccinated.
“I don’t believe it should be mandatory, but in certain instances where it is crucial to get yourself protected in your line of work, responsible authorities such as the ministry must take a stand on this,” he added.
The updated SOP, educationist Datuk N. Siva Subramaniam said, should be student-centric and simple. Parent-teacher associations, too, he said, should be made an essential part of the system in helping schools manage the volume of students and in ensuring the SOP is adhered to.
While she looks forward to welcoming students from Sunway International School back, Prof Dr Elizabeth Lee said it is vital to ensure high levels of safety and protection in schools are adhered to.
“This involves the lives of our children and our educators. Ensuring that everyone is vaccinated must be a priority as vaccination protects us from severe infections,” the Sunway Education Group chief operating officer added.
She, however, said it is important to recognise individuals who have legitimate reasons to not get vaccinated. There are also those who may be awaiting their vaccination appointments, she said, including those in rural areas.
“As such, the upcoming SOP by the ministry should take into consideration these legitimate reasons.
“We must ensure that the risk of infection for those unprotected by the vaccine is minimised.
“Hybrid learning (dual mode learning or online options) should continue to be available for staff and students.
“This is also in light of Covid-19 being endemic. Hence, if an educator or student become close contacts or get infected, they will still be able to continue learning from home during their self-quarantine,” she explained.
It is crucial to work within the boundaries of health and science for the benefit of everyone, she said, adding that practices such as physical distancing, wearing double masks and sanitising hands are important at the individual level.
As the country continues to battle against Covid-19, Prof Lee said vaccinations are still the “best hope” for reopening schools and allowing students to experience the vital developmental years in their lives.
“At the spatial level, ensuring good ventilation should be part of any plan when recommencing face-to-face teaching and learning.
“This means ensuring doors and windows are open, and there are enough breaks during the class,” she said.
Make receiving two doses of Covid-19 vaccines mandatory for all teachers, just like how it is for other frontline staff, Universiti Malaya Education Faculty senior lecturer and teacher-trainer Dr Zuwati Hasim said.
This will protect all parties in schools – teachers, administration staff and students, she said.
“Students are expected to receive their vaccines too; all parties need to be vigilant.
“At this stage, managing the pandemic calls for individual responsibility and civic consciousness; it also demands discipline from all if we are to overcome Covid-19.
“Even if the school community is fully vaccinated, a strict SOP is still necessary.
“When there is a need to reopen schools, the ministry must have measures that address issues related to the school community in place.
“These measures should include providing a safe environment for the school community, enhancing the teaching and learning process, and monitoring learning development,” she added. The daily monitoring of and adherence to school regulations, she said, should not be compromised.
She, however, believes that even with the vaccination of students and a stricter SOP in place, home-based teaching and learning (PdPR) should continue.
“Is there an urgent need for students to physically attend school when the battle against Covid-19 is still raging on?” she asked.
Many teachers and students have adjusted to PdPR, she said.
“No doubt online lessons could never replace face-to-face teaching and learning but the current condition does not permit us to gather in groups.
“Considering that the Delta variant is more infectious and contagious, and that the number of cases is still high and alarming, many teachers and parents are worried about schools reopening so soon,” she said.
Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA) president and consultant psychiatrist Professor Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj disagrees.
School closures negatively impact children’s health, education and development, he said, stressing that it is pertinent to reopen schools while ensuring teachers and parents are vaccinated.
Placing students in different classes based on their willingness or reluctance to be vaccinated, however, is not the best way to keep everyone safe, he cautioned.
“This will affect the mental health of students who are segregated. Instead, schools should invite health experts to keep teachers and parents informed about issues related to Covid-19 and its transmission.
“Organising a virtual town hall with paediatricians in the district who are likely to be familiar faces with parents in the community, is a better option,” he said, adding that schools should work with the district health departments to help educate teachers and school staff on the importance of vaccination.
Disciplinary action should be the last option if such soft approaches fail, he said. There must be massive campaigns on pro-vaccination, but this needs to have a more personal and local approach as people tend to trust their local general practitioners (GP) or paediatricians better, he added.