By Nik Nazmi

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--Malaysia will face another Covid-19 wave if the government bungles the proposed September 2021 school reopening, including by refusing to listen to constructive criticism and suggestions.

Worse, it will put the lives of Malaysian schoolchildren and their teachers, as well as the families of both at risk. At the same time, reopening will not help our students catch up if not done properly.

Here are some ideas of mine on how Malaysia can ensure the best outcomes for the September reopening.

First: we need to vaccinate not just teachers but everyone working in schools who are physically able to be inoculated. All of them: no excuses or hesitation.

At the very least, those who are supposed to have regular interaction with school children should be prioritised.

Next, schools must be given time to prepare and create proper social distancing procedures.
For instance, better ventilation is an absolute must.

Schools in areas more badly affected by the coronavirus or with denser population should be given more time and support by the Ministry of Education.

There’s still great uncertainty over how the reopening of schools will be staged. As usual, the PN government and the Minister of Education Dr. Mohd Radzi Jidin has chosen to be sparing with details, answers and information.

It would certainly be disastrous to open it all at once. Rather, as noted, red zone schools and those in highly-populated areas should be given more time and flexibility, including allowing alternate dates/weeks for student attendance.

The best solution would be to carry out some form of hybrid learning.

This leads me to my next point: the digital “infrastructure” of Malaysian education should not be forgotten now that face-to-face learning is coming back.

We need to ensure that we can effectively execute hybrid classes (some face-to-face, some following online from home), which will help social distancing in schools.

Again, where are the devices for the B40 students? Didik TV must not be forgotten the way TV Pendidikan was previously.

Certainly though, students who don’t have conducive home environments and/or easy internet access should be given priority for face-to-face learning.

This will require the Ministry to have granular knowledge and data on the children.
Stronger hybrid learning and digital infrastructure are not only to ensure our schools are prepared in case, God forbid, we have to lockdown again, but because it’s high time our education system adopts and uses more technology, including in curriculums.

The Covid-19 pandemic was an opportunity to do this: the PN government has squandered the chance for more than a year.

We must invest more in teachers. Teaching won’t be “business as usual” anymore given everything that has happened.

Teacher aides will be needed—again, these can help to manage social distancing and hybrid learning. They can ensure class sizes remain low, a crucial requirement for learning during a pandemic.

Hiring teacher aides is an immediate-term fix to the issue of unemployed graduates while reducing the burden of teachers.

We need day care/childcare for the children of teachers too.

Red tape must be cut relentlessly. Let’s get rid of unnecessary Ministry of Education meetings which force principals, teachers or administrations to move around, even if and when face-to-face gatherings are allowed.

It’s a “sacrifice” worth making because they are dealing daily with an important “national treasure”: Malaysia’s children.

Another good thing would be to release schools and teachers from the administration requirements of “Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah” school-based assessment. At any rate, getting authentic data for this is not conducive if hybrid learning, with 50%-60% online attendance, is to be adopted.

It is appropriate for the curriculum from each year/level to be reviewed to focus on core skills and knowledge that students need in order to proceed and include life skills as well.

I have repeatedly called for long-term and in-depth studies to be done on the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on students, not only from a public health point of view but also an educational and socio-economic standpoint.

Indeed, we probably need something more urgent: Malaysia desperately needs a task force to study the impact of Covid-19 on the skills development, knowledge and mental health of students at primary and secondary schools, with the requirement to produce an action plan to mitigate the impact of any education loss.

That is why my colleagues and I in the Pakatan Harapan Education Committee have been pressing for education to be included in the upcoming “Special Parliamentary Sitting.”

Its omission from the agenda is utterly inexplicable when so much is at stake and is a sign that the PN government’s priorities are sadly misplaced.