This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on December 21, 2020 - December 27, 2020
The 2021 school session is due to start on Jan 21 next year. The Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) and Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) examinations are scheduled to start on Feb 22 and March 8 respectively. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, schoolchildren nationwide have faced the unfortunate situation of having only two full months of in-class sessions, in February and August.
What a challenge 2021 will be for schools. Indeed, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has a big task ahead planning for the upcoming school session and it urgently needs to get its act together.
There are many issues that need to be considered and properly planned to ensure that schools run smoothly and safely for everyone involved.
The issues, among others, are:
a) To safely open schools and prevent outbreaks within schools
b) To enforce preventive and protective measures in schools
c) To schedule classes so schools are not overcrowded
d) To ensure adequate teaching staff for Forms 4 and 5, considering that the same teachers will be teaching three cohorts since there are two SPM cohorts (2020 and 2021)
e) As the SPM 2021 cohort is the pioneer batch of the KSSM (National Secondary School Standard) curriculum, teachers would need to test and adjust to the new SPM format and instruments
f) The mental well-being of the schoolchildren and those falling behind in their learning
g) To adequately support and
guide teachers and schools to cope with the new challenges
The World Health Organization (WHO) report entitled “What we know about Covid-19 transmission in schools” dated Oct 21 should be the reference point in planning the reopening of schools.
The benchmark used in South Korea to open schools safely was when there was low community spread, when the daily confirmed cases dropped to below 50. But where there is high community spread, schools have to be diligent about masking, class size, hand washing, testing and tracing. Closing schools is only considered when there are no other alternatives.
In the case of a secondary school in Israel where a major outbreak occurred, it was concluded that the public health measures were weak. The classes had poor ventilation, were overcrowded and students were exempted from wearing masks during a heat wave. Therefore, the most important thing is to adhere to preventive measures — wearing masks, ensuring good ventilation, practising physical distancing at all times, paying attention to class size, no overcrowding in school areas, and students and teachers regularly washing their hands. These preventive and protective measures under the Covid-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs) should be strictly adhered to at all times, and monitored by school heads, district education officers, the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Majlis Keselamatan Negara (MKN). Schools must ensure there is no breach of the SOPs.
MOE must look into the rotation model that was proposed when schools reopened in June. Many schools did not opt for this model possibly due to problems in scheduling and teacher resources. However, to ensure that schools remain open despite the Covid-19 numbers, we need to be realistic.
In order to prevent overcrowding but give everyone the opportunity to be in school, we propose to put students into two groups: Group A consisting of Standards 1 to 3 (primary school) and Forms 1 to 3 (secondary school), and Group B consisting of Standards 4 to 6 (primary school) and Forms 4 to 6 (secondary school). Group A will go to school on Mondays to Wednesdays and Group B on Thursdays to Saturdays. Their school days will be reduced to three days a week of physical classes, with the off days complemented by blended learning, online learning and workbooks.
Teachers will need a lot of support and guidance from their peers and leaders. They are now considered frontliners, the capable heroes despite the challenges that lay ahead. Adhering to teaching according to the syllabus would be difficult and perhaps unnecessary. However, they need to decide collectively the key concepts for teaching the respective age groups. MOE should aid them by condensing the syllabus so that only key concepts are taught. Removing the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) and Pentaksiran Tingkatan 3 (PT3) examinations for now would help the teachers and students focus on getting the learning right and ensuring everyone’s mental well-being.
The most urgent issue that needs to be addressed is to safely open schools immediately for the SPM and STPM 2020 candidates. Forego the December and January holidays. These students are eager to get back to their studies and make up for lost time. We urge the minister and the MOE, MOH and MKN to press the panic button and prepare to open schools.
According to data and research from WHO, the United Nations Children’s Fund or Unicef, the World Bank and the International Federation of the Red Cross, there are findings to support the need to keep schools open. The Covid-19 numbers could be the same next year when schools are due to open. It would be wise to test the SOPs now to ensure adjustments can be made. If tuition centres are given the go ahead to open for five students in a class now, the same should at least be granted to schools.
MOE cannot keep silent on these issues. It must explicitly come up with measures to ensure that students will be given assistance as they move to a higher level next year, while assuring parents that a comprehensive and measured approach has been thoroughly thought out to overcome all the lost time moving forward.
Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of PAGE Malaysia
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