Piecemeal responses not helping our vulnerable

Limited access: Some families only have one device that their children must share to do their schoolwork. For others, connectivity is an issue.

A report from the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) on what school shutdowns will do to children’s education had some alarming things to say. Published in May this year, among other things it warned that “evidence for unexpected temporary school closures and reduced instruction time suggests that school closures will reduce educational achievement both in the short and long term”.

It also added that children from disadvantaged backgrounds “are likely to be affected more than others by school closures, with fewer family resources and less access to online learning resources to offset lost instruction time”.

I am amazed that the CEP commissioned such a report so early in the pandemic, but that’s what a culture of intellectual curiosity does for you. Meanwhile I’m wondering whether there is anything similar that examines the impact of school closures in our country.

I’ve only managed to find a report done by Unicef Malaysia that highlighted three very stark numbers: youth unemployment is likely to rise from the already high 11% in 2019, school closures affect some four million children and half a million children from

low-income households have been deprived of the supplementary school meals programme that provides them with the nutrition they need for their growth.

We know that except for those parents who have already been homeschooling their children, it is really not easy to teach children at home. Even if you had all the books and equipment you need, teaching children their schoolwork takes a lot of patience and perseverance. And that is if you don’t have your own work and the housework to do as well.

What if you don’t have the devices such as laptops or iPads that you need so that children can follow their lessons online? In rich households switching to online learning should not be a problem. Not only do they have the means to follow school subjects online, but they have a wealth of other books and games to keep their brains stimulated.

It’s a different story in low-income households. A study involving more than 670,000 parents and 900,000 students in Malaysia found that about one-third do not own any devices at all. If they’re lucky, there’ll be at most one laptop to be shared by everyone.

Some families are so poor that the children have to wait until their father comes home from work to use his phone to look up their lessons. That is not always the solution either. As we also now famously know from a young girl in Sabah, having a device is one thing, connectivity is another thing altogether.

The assumption is of course that our teachers are geared up to provide lessons online at all.

The Education Ministry has provided guidelines to parents and teachers on this new form of school. But questions remain. Do teachers themselves have the means and devices to set up online lessons at all? After all they too have homes with children who need all their attention.

In the face of all this, with the current lockdowns continuing seemingly with no end in sight, it is hardly surprising that tensions are rising within the home. Parents are worried about their jobs and wondering if they will continue to have one into the new year.

Some have already lost their jobs and finding it difficult to pivot into other income-generating occupations.

With children constantly at home, bored and restless, is it any wonder that the parents’ patience is tried? The seemingly made-on-the-fly CMCO order restrictions often bring more hardship than help. A good example is the two-persons-per-car rule. It has created all sorts of problems for parents even with one child because they can never travel as a family anywhere, not even to hospital. Even the three-people-per-car rule makes no sense, from an infection control point of view, when they are all together at home anyway.

Due to all these restrictions and worries, domestic abuse has gone up, a phenomenon we have seen all over the world. Do we simply shrug our shoulders at it? We have to be more alert to protect victims and would-be victims who are inevitably women and children.

The Women, Family and Community Development Ministry needs to be more proactive in setting up systems to detect cases and provide help, in collaboration with NGOs. This is the time for new approaches to an old heightened problem, not denials.

The Education Ministry should also be concerned that whole

generations of children are going to be handicapped by their lost year of education.

How are they planning to remedy the situation?

Surely this is an urgent problem to address if we are to get back on our feet quickly once this pandemic is over.

We have always emphasised the importance of education for the country’s development. Why then is it that we hear so little from the Education Ministry of their plans? Is it enough to just budget for laptops now when children are unable to read?

Children are resilient but we still need to keep their brains stimulated. How are we to address that when there are so many unequal households, as evidenced by the number of B40s the government needs to subsidise? Where is the forward planning?

I’d suggest that temporary community schools in PPR flats be set up to give some class time to kids even if only two hours a day, taught by paid teachers (preferably those living in the same area). This would help not only to keep the children’s skills up, it would also occupy them for a while and provide some relief to their besieged parents. Even if it’s just playtime or storytelling, I believe it would help.

But schools should open soon with strict SOPs. New rules have to be devised to protect everyone. This is the time for innovative thinking.

The fallout from closing schools has an economic impact beyond that on our children. School canteen businesses and bus drivers are suffering just from the one act of closing schools. How many others are affected by this? Gardeners, cleaners, general workers?

Like many social issues, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for whole-of-government responses, not piecemeal ones. All we are seeing these days are what looks like ad-hoc policies that seem short-termed in focus. Is that because our leaders don’t expect to stay long?

Marina Mahathir worries that we’ll be knocked back into the Neolithic ages because we seem to be ruled by Neanderthals.The views expressed here are solely the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sunday Star.

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Marina Mahathir , Musings column


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