Schools have finally physically opened for the new academic year but it has started only with those sitting for examinations. That means, for national schools, Form Five and Six students in preparation for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) on Feb 22 and Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia on March 8 respectively. The Education Ministry has also allowed SPM trial examinations to be scrapped.
Parents and students, however, are still apprehensive. Some have expressed their desire to finish off the trials as a fallback plan should the SPM be further postponed or even cancelled because of the overwhelming Covid-19 cases daily. Some see the trials as irrelevant as many are unprepared and think that focusing on the SPM itself would be a better strategy.
Then there are those who want to just get it over with, prepared or otherwise, while others want another postponement in order for more face-to-face classes to be conducted. It is a slippery slope for all stakeholders but there must be decisiveness yet flexibility from the Education Ministry in overcoming this plight as every school is unique, as are the students. Do not reprimand absent students.
Students must strictly follow the Covid-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs) as they attend school and teachers must quickly dive into the syllabus without any hesitation. We hope schools too will be sensitive, stay focused and concentrate on examination-level material and not dilly-dally with non-academic activities as time is of the essence.
Special mention goes to the teachers in Lenggong, Perak, who have been teaching Form Five students at the village community centre, with SOPs in place, from 8am to 4pm daily, showing their dedication and determination to see the students excel.
We are still perplexed as to why schools were not allowed to open in the first week of the year as they usually do, not ignoring the fact that Covid-19 is a moving target. As it is, so much time has been lost and the students could have made up for it even if it had just been through some basic refresher online learning.
Schools could also have allocated specific rooms for parents to exchange old textbooks for new ones, and much of the typical new year administrative matters could have been sorted out even without any face-to-face interaction. Incidentally, the new Form Five 2021 students will be receiving brand new KSSM (Malaysia national curriculum) textbooks.
It was only in mid-January that students were given the names of their class teachers. Slowly but surely, students are being given their timetables, YouTube videos to view, digital textbooks, textbook references and instructions to print out worksheets. Teachers too cannot assume that every student has a printer at home. For primary school students, copying worksheets improves handwriting and spelling, unlike merely filling in blanks.
A major assumption made by the education minister is that online learning is effective, when we know full well that it is not. We hear of a few success stories but these are few and far between. Students who were unable to enhance their internet connectivity and obtain additional devices during the school holidays will have to endure another round of sheer agony.
It is worse when teachers themselves have not made any, or little, attempt to up their game. Free online platforms such as Delima, Sophia, EduwebTV and Khan Academy are not fully utilised by teachers or students.
For students who are not connected to WiFi, TV Pendidikan and TVOkey are the next best alternatives, however boring they may be.
The importance of physical textbooks and books in general cannot be over-emphasised. Had parents been given the opportunity to return old books last year and collect new books, a lot of time could have been saved, with an unexpected emergency and Movement Control Order declared.
The education minister has assured that SOPs will not be tightened any more this time but promised that enforcement will be heightened. Over 1,000 students were infected previously and although the source of infection may not have been determined accurately, we cannot and should not see a repeat of those staggering figures in the current wave.
While we have seen that students recover much more quickly than adults, it is not an excuse to be lax. The responsibility has now fallen on the schools and the community at large, especially parents, to ensure that the children are protected at all times by strictly adhering to the SOPs from home to school and back.
While asking for the health ministry to perform spot checks on schools would be ideal, officers at the state education departments and district education offices should also ensure that SOPs are rigorously complied with.
Parents want to see accountability if there are flaws or weaknesses in the enforcement of SOPs. Until accountability is ascertained, there will always be a tendency to pass the buck.
Can school leaders be made accountable if students are infected in school as a result of any lapse in the enforcement of the SOPs? Can the education minister be made to resign if school leaders fail to uphold teaching standards during the pandemic? Should the government plan and prepare for mass testing of school-going children, possibly via antigen testing which is cheaper and quicker, even if the infectivity of children is only 0.26%?
We pray that our children — from all standards and forms — will be safe as they eagerly wait to return to their respective schools. The children themselves will have to be taught by their parents or guardians the importance of abiding by the SOPs, and reminded of this often. This should neither be left to chance nor wholly to the teachers to manage. We do not want to face the widespread disruption of another school closure and not see an end to it for a long time to come.
Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is chairman of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, an educational lobby group that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders