Ideas: Nationwide school closures and the impact on vulnerable students

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 24, 2020 - August 30, 2020.
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Schools have finally reopened, normal classroom learning has resumed, but what has happened to the vulnerable group of students who struggled to gain access to e-learning materials during the Movement Control Order (MCO) period and the Covid-19 pandemic?

The previous five months of online teaching have led to a loss in learning for these vulnerable students, which in turn could eventually result in a higher rate of dropouts, owing to their inability to keep up with their peers.

The Ministry of Education has made efforts to ensure the continuity of teaching and learning while at home through e-learning or the hosting and publishing of learning materials online. However, the method introduced by the ministry ignores the digital divide and education inequity present in society — access to electricity, devices and the internet. The impact of school closures on student learning varies by socioeconomic condition and the extent to which schools can provide quality education remotely.

Remote learning is not available to or accessible by all students, and those who were marginalised before the pandemic are now suffering much more because of the existing inequality. Senior Minister (Education) Radzi Jidin mentioned that only 15% of students have PCs, thus the majority of students could not effectively adapt to benefit from e-learning. Apart from access to technological devices, many vulnerable students lack even the most basic necessities such as electricity or internet connectivity. The absence of access to one of these three components makes online learning impossible and leads to a larger educational gap as time passes.

In this instance, students who are already at a greater advantage will continue to pull ahead while students already suffering will continue to do so and fall even further behind. Indeed, the virus does not discriminate between the poor and the rich, but those who can afford access to more resources will mitigate the repercussions of not going to school much more effectively. Those from affluent families can easily catch up with the syllabus with easy access to digital devices, the internet, online materials and even extra tuition post-pandemic.

Students who do not have access to the internet, let alone a device, cannot keep up-to-date with the syllabus, which leads to learning loss. Member of Parliament for Kulai Teo Nie Ching said 46.5% of students rely on smartphones for their e-learning experiences. Thus, if a family of five had to depend on just one device, the effectiveness of e-learning would be extremely poor as every member, be it child or parent, would have to fight for use of the device whenever they needed it.

The digital divide was even more prevalent when almost all businesses in the economic sector gradually reopened during the transition from MCO to Recovery MCO. Only some of the upper-secondary students could return to school at the start. Thus, the majority of the students were still at home — as schools fully reopened only on July 22 — exacerbating the situation as their parents would have to bring that one device to work, leaving the children with no resources until the end of the day.

In terms of e-learning materials, as there is no face-to-face interaction involved, the content must be easily received and understood by both parents and children. Therefore, the quality of e-learning that the student receives is also dependent on the school’s ability to offer an effective strategic plan in delivering distance learning and monitoring methods. It should not only emphasise providing the right resources but also ensure that the learning material can be absorbed as efficiently as possible.

It is crucial for parents — if they have the ability to support — to actively engage in the provision of remote learning to ensure continuity of education. This is an inequality, however, that has been prevalent prior to MCO. It is dependent on whether a school has the resources and teachers have sufficient support. For example, schools with an active parent-teacher association will have an advantage as the parents would be more inclined to ensure their children got enough support and resources.

E-learning during the closure of schools is evidently not inclusive of all students. Those with visual or audio disabilities would also face difficulties in adapting to e-learning. These students would normally have access to the required materials for normal learning, but they may not have the same assistance at home.

As suggested by Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) research manager Ya Shin, traditional media-based learning — via print materials (traditional handouts) or even radio — should be considered to complement and support efforts made for online learning, thus ensuring that all aspects are covered. Through a variety of mediums, it should also be assured that the content shared is inclusive of students who need additional support for learning — sign language, audio provision and graphics. This will further aid efforts in providing resources for those who have trouble gaining access to education because of the digital divide.

Education should be seen as a main mechanism to lift one out of poverty. Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the digital divide is resulting in an even more significant education and achievement gap between socioeconomically privileged students and the unfortunate ones.

This should not be the case, as education should be supplemented to be available and accessible to all, regardless of where you live — urban, semi-urban, rural or remote areas. These children are in a crucial phase of their lives for their growth in critical thinking and self-development. Only time will tell the magnitude of the effects of the Covid-19 crisis on our nation’s students and the education system.

Consequently, with the reopening of schools, the government needs to take immediate action in regards to students who were vulnerable during the MCO period, as they had trouble accessing learning materials online. This problem can be mitigated by providing additional support such as extra tuition outside school hours for those who are struggling to keep up and counselling sessions to monitor the students’ mental health, to ensure they do not fall behind even more in school. These steps should be taken to ensure the continuity and inclusivity of education for all students despite their background and postcode.


Ewanina Effandie is research executive at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs

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