SOME want schools shut until Covid-19 is eradicated while some others want them reopened immediately.
Conflicting emotions and concerns are running high with less than a week for children to be allowed back in school in stages.
Such decisions, Education Minister Datuk Dr Radzi Jidin stressed, cannot be merely made based on sentiments.
With schools having opened and closed numerous times since the outbreak of the pandemic, students have had to rely heavily on home-based teaching and learning (PdPR).
The decision to reopen schools in stages is vital to ensure students do not suffer from further learning losses.
Radzi said stricter standard operating procedures (SOPs) to better protect students from the coronavirus and to prevent them from falling behind in their studies or worse, dropping out of school, have been introduced.
“The easy way out for me as the minister would have been to close schools until next year.
“However, we are in the midst of moving towards recovery and returning to our daily lives in the new normal with new procedures to follow,” he said on Sept 12 during the announcement of the tightened and updated SOPs.
He said the new comprehensive SOPs were drafted after obtaining input from all stakeholders including teachers, parents, students, experts and more importantly, the Health Ministry and the National Security Council.
“What’s important is to bring the students back to school because they have been away for a long time, and we cannot continue to let them be like this,” he added.
SEGi University psychologist Prof Datin Dr Mariani Md Nor said the reopening of schools for examination year students in the different phases of the National Recovery Plan is significant and appropriate because these groups of students must refamiliarise themselves with the school environment.
“This is so they can mentally prepare for the upcoming examinations in a better, conducive learning environment.
“By being in the school environment, they will face the reality of the seriousness of the learning process and the importance of having good discussions when they meet up physically.
“At the same time, meeting their friends and teachers will help students gain extrinsic motivation in their learning process and allow them to brainstorm on the topics learnt; there is less opportunity to do this during online lessons,” she told StarEdu.
Prof Mariani’s research area focuses on children’s physical and socioemotional development, with an emphasis on Orang Asli children, and the importance of play for children.
She stressed that practising the rotation model is important, especially for children who are entering schools for the first time.This is because they need to be familiar with the school environment and school routine, she added, which can help in developing their socioemotional skills and cultivating good values.
Agreeing, Malaysian Mental Health Association president and consultant psychiatrist Prof Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj said the gradual entry and rotation system, while prioritising examination year students, is a move that must be supported.
“Prolonged absence from schools despite PdPR will result in compromised learning and increased dropout cases.
“Additionally, the school environment is crucial for the development of social and emotional skills, particularly for younger children,” he said, adding that the move will also provide some respite for parents as it will allow them to return to their work.
For this plan to be effective, he said the SOPs should be consistent between students and teachers, as it will provide a mutually beneficial outcome for everyone in the school environment.
He said schools must be meticulous in implementing effective symptom reporting, monitoring and testing.
“Fruitful engagement with parents regarding the re-entry of such students must be considered.”
Universiti Putra Malaysia consultant clinical microbiologist and Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences dean Prof Dr Zamberi Sekawi said it’s important to make decisions based on current situations, especially as Covid-19 slowly transitions into becoming endemic.
“Risk of hospitalisation is also lower now because of vaccines.
“So, the ministry’s approach towards reopening schools and implementing tighter SOPs can be seen as a soft-landing transition in bringing students back.
“The SOPs are reasonable in lowering the risk of infection but having said that, schools must be vigilant in carrying them out strictly,” said Prof Zamberi, who is also the Malaysian Society of Infectious Diseases and Chemotherapy president.
The time to act is now, United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) Malaysia education specialist Azlina Kamal said, considering the irreversible harm of prolonged school closures on the cognitive and socioemotional development, and psychosocial impact and well-being of children.
She said Unicef welcomes the ministry’s decision to reopen schools, adding that more than five million Malaysian children have lost instructional time.
The disruptions to the education system since early 2020, she said, have caused substantial losses and inequalities in learning, while disproportionately affecting marginalised children.
“While efforts to provide remote instruction and learning are laudable, there have been severe challenges to digital access and inclusion, and it cannot substitute the benefits of in-person learning that children receive in schools.
“Even more concerning, many children may not return to school even when schools reopen.
She added that schools play a critical role in ensuring the delivery of essential health services and nutritious meals, protection, and psychosocial support.
“Thus, school closures have also disrupted children’s overall well-being and development, not just their learning.”