The reopening of schools is no doubt a step forward that needs to be carried out with caution and adequate risk mitigation, but is also one that can no longer be delayed as we learn to live with the virus and adjust to a new normal.
On Sept 12, the Minister of Education announced the School Operationalization Plan which includes the plan for phased school reopening beginning October 3.
Reopening steps are linked to the phases of the National Recovery Plan.
This announcement is a welcome end to Malaysia’s prolonged nationwide school closure.
School closures for 48 weeks in Malaysia have had a devastating impact on children as they have lost the opportunities for cognitive, social and physical development during this formative period of their lives.
For more vulnerable children, schools also provide food subsidies and in some cases, refuge from an abusive or dysfunctional home.
After this prolonged interruption to our children’s education, reopening schools is urgent and cannot be delayed any further.
While the plan is a step in the right direction, we believe its implementation needs to be greatly accelerated.
As it stands, many of the more meaningful steps towards reopening are only scheduled to occur in Phase 3 and 4 states, when in fact they can and should be brought forward and implemented on a case-by-case basis for states in Phase 2. Two examples of this are the reopening of preschools (Phase 3) and the reopening of primary schools (Phase 4).
We also call for decentralized decision-making for the phases of school reopening. Instead of blanket decisions on reopening at the state level, some degree of decentralization in decision-making is necessary since community transmission within states can differ widely.
Decisions on school reopening should be made by individual schools and their parent communities in consultation with the district health and education officials.
Schools which are prepared with SOPs, whose teachers and staff have been vaccinated and where community vaccination rates are high should be given permission to reopen immediately.
Other schools which should be given special consideration for immediate reopening include smaller schools (e.g. Sekolah Kurang Murid) and very isolated or remote schools.
While the measure of limiting capacity via the rotational model proposed is a temporary solution, there is an urgent need for a longer term plan.
It is clear by now that remote learning cannot adequately replace in-person interactions, especially for younger children. Furthermore, a large proportion of children in Malaysia still do not have access to a device or a stable Internet connection.
As such, there must be an immediate allocation of funds towards making sure that our schools can safely accommodate the return of all children in physical terms.
Some of the longer term investments might include hiring more teachers, expanding classroom capacity to reduce density, improving ventilation and investing in creative outdoor classroom solutions.
In the same way that budgets can be moved to build hospitals and quarantine centers, and roll out vaccinations, adequate funds need to be allocated to reopening our schools as quickly and safely as possible.
A longer term solution must also include a comprehensive recovery plan to address learning losses caused by prolonged school closures.
If we truly believe that our children’s education matters, reopening our schools as safely and as quickly as possible should be the ministry’s top priority.
Signatures (in alphabetical order):
1. Joanna Menon Lim, Co-Founder, Buka Sekolah Kami!
2. Dr JoAnn Rajah, Consultant Pediatrician
3. Katyana Azman, Consultant Child Psychologist
4. Dr Khor Swee Kheng, Independent Health Policies Specialist
5. Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE)
6. Dr Rakhee Yadav, Consultant Pediatrician
7. Professor Dr Sanjay Rampal, Public Health Specialist