AFTER experiencing online learning for several months, finally, Malaysian students can enjoy some form of normalcy. They can now return to schools for physical lessons and enjoy face-to-face interactions with classmates and teachers.

Effective Oct 4, 10 Malaysian states in Phases 2 to 4 of the National Recovery Plan will reopen schools, which will involve 94,000 students in the following states:

1. Penang, Perak and Sabah for Phase 2;

2. Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, Selangor, Malacca, Perlis, Pahang and Sarawak for Phase 3; and

3. Negri Sembilan and the Federal Territory of Labuan for Phase 4.

Resuming face-to-face school sessions is an apt outcome for students who have patiently endured school closures until now, as we race towards the last three months of 2021. Due to the on-and-off school closures arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, students have experienced more than one year of learning loss.

As Malaysia has undergone nearly 35 weeks of school closures, one of the longest in the world, there is an increasing fear that more children will become disinterested in studying, which may result in a higher school dropout rate compared with the pre-pandemic period.

In contrast, schools in high income countries were only closed between zero and 16 weeks. According to the Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) Institute for Statistics’ “Global monitoring of school closures caused by the Covid-19 Pandemic” data, the United Kingdom closed for 16 weeks, and other countries were as follows: 9 weeks for China and New Zealand; 7 weeks for France; 4 weeks for Singapore; 3 weeks for Japan; and 0 week for Sweden.

In managing online learning as part of the measures to cope with the impact from school closures, the government distributed nearly 130,000 out of the 150,000 laptops under the Cerdik Initiative. However, teachers still found it challenging to have close contact with their students because they either had limited internet connections at home or limited access to digital devices.

Such a scenario is especially true among students in rural and remote areas. For instance, when Ryverra Wiviani Rinus, a 15-year-old Kadazandusun student from Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Keningau googled “digital divide” using her mother’s phone at her home in Kampung Bomboi, Keningau, she could not download a single page.

Based on a parliamentary speech delivered by Kulai member of Parliament (MP) Teo Nie Ching, in November 2020, 37%, or 1.7 million school students, did not have any electronic devices to participate in online lessons. They did not have a laptop, tablet or computer to follow up on online lessons.

Although some students had access to digital devices, they had to share devices with their family members as their parents were low income earners who could not afford to buy additional laptops or smartphones for their children for online learning.

Even though the government strengthened the functions of community internet centres and extended broadcasting hours of DidikTV, Simpang Renggam MP Maszlee Malik warned continuous school closures could create a “lost generation” in Malaysia. Such a phenomenon is possible when the government and stakeholders failed to synergise their efforts to prevent disruption to the education system.

Despite the Education Ministry introducing numerous initiatives such as “Kelas@Rumah” and Digital Educational Learning Initiative Malaysia to assist students in following up on their education syllabus, and for both teachers and students to acquire skills in digital learning for future school closures, teachers still faced difficulties in conducting engaging lessons with students virtually.

Due to a sudden pivot towards online learning brought about by the pandemic, which was not foreseen, teachers had to apply simplified teaching methodologies such as video conferencing to facilitate online teaching.

Many teachers could not adopt innovative teaching methodologies such as the extensive use and deployment of multimedia under the learning management systems and online learning tools, gamification, virtual and augmented reality, etc.

This is because they either do not have the skill sets for online teaching or lacked sufficient funds to integrate innovative methodologies into the current curricula.

Therefore, to recover the learning losses arising from the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, and to maintain safety within school premises, EMIR Research suggests the current measures:

1. Establish a national education council comprising experts, professionals, academics and representatives from teacher and parent associations to formulate an integrated plan for post-pandemic education;

2. Apply a hybrid learning model whereby students can study, for example, in school for two days and stay at home for online classes. Such a measure will ensure physical distancing among students until such time when Covid-19 has become endemic;

3. Waive costs associated with school attendance such as face masks, food and transport, etc., to maximise re-enrolment rates, particularly among underprivileged students;

4. Accelerate and expand the installation of fibre-optic cables in pre-existing electricity grids to ensure students based in rural and remote areas can also enjoy better digital connectivity with appropriate digital devices;

5. Identify those who have yet to receive laptops under the Cerdik Initiative and provide digital devices for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The government can work
with the private sector to provide more affordable devices for families, especially those with more than one child. Such an initiative will offer children from low-income families an opportunity to learn outside physical lessons; and

6. Train teachers to use multimedia and online learning tools effectively by enhancing their digital skills, building their capacity for more innovative pedagogy, and providing them with a lifetime support to help solve any technical questions they may have.

In addition, we strongly support efforts to encourage parents of children aged 12 to 17 to get their children vaccinated before going back to school (unless they have medical reasons). It should be made compulsory for teachers and school personnel to be vaccinated before they return to school.

Cleaning staff should also be trained on disinfection and sanitisation procedures, and equipped with personal protective equipment to some extent, if possible. Schools should also increase the number of staff on duty, whenever necessary, to ensure physical distancing measures are adhered to.

To cut the risk of transmission, teachers can lead by example and ensure students wear face masks and sanitise their hands regularly, as well as leave windows open in classrooms to provide better ventilation.

By adopting a mix of low-tech and high-tech interventions, children in Malaysia can follow up on their education syllabus despite the pandemic, thereby equipping them with the necessary skill sets for the future job market.

Amanda Yeo is Research Analyst at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.