IN FOCUS: Prolonged school closure in Malaysia due to COVID-19 shakes up learning experience
With education in Malaysia and elsewhere severely disrupted by the pandemic, CNA takes an in-depth look at how pupils have been affected, including those without easy access to the tools needed for remote learning.
KUALA LUMPUR: For most of 2020, school lessons for Siti Najihah Najwa Ridzuan, 17, were very different from normal.
Instead of going into classes, she had to turn on her laptop at 8am and sit through five hours of online lessons, with breaks in between each hour of class.
“That is how it has been since they started online classes, because schools were closed as part of the Movement Control Order (MCO),” said Siti Najihah, who lives in Ulu Bernam, Selangor, and attended school in Tanjung Malim, Perak, just across the interstate border.
Siti Najihah, who was in Secondary 5, was due to sit for her Malaysian Education Certificate (SPM) examination between November and December, along with 400,000 other students. The O-Level equivalent is a rite of passage and a determining factor in future studies.
However, the exam and the A-Level equivalent, the Malaysian Higher School Certificate (STPM) exam, have been postponed to February and March this year.
This has caused consternation among some students due to the long wait, but relief for others as there was more time to revise their studies in what has been a tumultuous year in their learning journey.
Malaysia’s school closures, which were put in place as part of the MCO to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic, disrupted the education of students.
Schools were first closed from Mar 18, with all non-essential businesses closed and movement curbed. While primary and secondary schools later resumed in phases from Jul 15 onwards, educational institutions in Selangor, Sabah, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya were shut again from Oct 14 due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.
All schools nationwide were subsequently closed on Nov 9 as cases spiked, ahead of the last day of the school year on Dec 17 or Dec 18, depending on states. This meant students in Malaysia only attended school in person for about five to six months in 2020.
While SPM and STPM examinations were postponed until 2021, the Primary School Achievement Test (UPSR) for students in Primary 6 and the Secondary 3 Assessment (PT3) examinations were entirely cancelled.
When schools were closed, some teachers turned to online methods of instruction, developing workarounds and utilising video-conferencing and other productivity tools.
Lessons were also produced by the education ministry and aired on television channels, but their quality has been questioned.
Effectiveness of online learning aside, the prolonged school closure also shone a spotlight on the income disparity and digital divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Parents working from home had to juggle between work and supervising their children’s online education, while coping with the stress presented by the pandemic. Students, on the other hand, had to adapt to lack of social interaction and inactivity as a result of school closure.
With the 2021 school year due to begin on Jan 20, how would the students fare academically following a challenging year that has kept them mostly at home, restless and bored?
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TAKING CLASSES ONLINE AND MISSING SCHOOL LIFE
Watching their teachers on the screens of their devices required a fair share of discipline and concentration, as the students found out.
For Siti Najihah, online classes only started in April even though schools were closed from Mar 18. She felt that online learning was not adequate, especially as she was due to sit for SPM.
“I’m more comfortable learning face-to-face, and at times problems also crop up when you’re learning from home. For example, the data connection gets broken and it can also be noisy at home,” she said.
“Learning online, it’s difficult to understand ... because we’re just looking at the screen. But there’s no other method, so we just continue,” she added.
Chiam Kai Li, who studies in Petaling Jaya and was also due to sit for SPM, said she was relieved there was more time for her to better understand the syllabus and master answering techniques.
“But the process of constantly doing past year papers over and over can be quite exhausting. It’s no longer about learning new things, but relearning and regurgitating the same words over and over again,” Kai Li, 17, told CNA.
For her, the repetitiveness of online classes resulted in boredom creeping in.
“I tend to get bored easily listening to my teachers, and I end up scrolling through social media. It’s quite tiresome to sit in front of the laptop for hours listening to what has already been taught,” she said.
Additionally, Kai Li told CNA that she missed the non-academic aspects of school, such as seeing her friends and spending the last year of secondary education together. Even when schools were reopened briefly between July and October last year, students were required to wear masks, observe social distancing and spend recess time in classrooms.
“Being with my friends is much livelier than the four walls staring back at me at home. Also, being in an environment where all my classmates were diligently studying also motivated me to study, back in July when school reopened for a short while,” she recounted.
As it is, Kai Li and her cohort have already missed out on activities their seniors enjoyed, including graduation ceremony, school prom and sports day.
“My class was struggling to figure out how to take our class pictures for the school magazine, but we had to come to terms with reality,” she recounted.
The postponement of SPM and STPM has also created anxiety for some school-leaving students as to how they would be able to further their tertiary education.
The post-secondary education system in Malaysia allows for new school leavers to apply at local private colleges using their SPM trial results, and start their pre-university or foundation courses in January, pending the final results which are usually published in March. Others may choose to go for later intakes with final results in hand.
But now that the results for the SPM and STPM will only be known in the second half of the year. This could potentially mean delaying six months of tertiary studies.
“I also don’t know when my SPM results will come out, so it makes me slightly anxious about what I am going to do after SPM next year (in 2021),” Kai Li shared.
CHALLENGES OF ONLINE TEACHING
For the educators, online teaching presented a whole new set of challenges, even more so when it was introduced hastily when schools were first closed.
A Malacca-based teacher, who only wanted to be known as L, opined that teaching online has its drawbacks, especially for subjects like mathematics and additional mathematics.
“These are very hands-on subjects … They are very hard to teach lecture-style because a lot of the skill is acquired by doing.
“Only then you will know where your misconceptions are, and you get feedback from your teachers and peers,” he shared.
For the stronger students, L said, online learning did not impact them so much, but his worry was more about the weaker students.
“When we go online, it’s very hard to get feedback on whether the student understands the concepts or not as we teach.
“I do randomly call out students during the online classes to see if they’re paying attention, and we also hand out assignments,” he said.
For him, student attendance in online classes was close to 100 per cent. This is because his principal would liaise with teachers, students as well as parents and emphasise the need to attend the online classes.
However, a lot of the students’ participation had to do with their individual self-motivation, L explained, as the lack of direct teacher supervision meant students had to work on the syllabus by themselves.
“Still, nothing replaces face-to-face classes, because you can catch their body language, you know who the students are with weaker grasp on the concepts.
“You can answer their questions there and then. Or even hold them back after school for some extra tutoring,” L said.
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A teacher from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, who only wanted to be known as E, said that her biggest worry was the nearly perfect answers she was getting on the assignments her students emailed back to her.
“This is the only feedback I get ... But the answer could have been easily copied from their more competent friends,” she noted.
Both L and E taught secondary classes.
They noted that priority was given to mathematics and science subjects, with the amount of time for teaching languages and history reduced according to guidelines from the Education Ministry.
“That allowed us to finish covering certain subjects, such as additional maths, within the normal schooling time frame,” E said.
Both teachers voiced a similar worry that they could not accurately assess their students’ progress last year.
“While online teaching and learning have opened new doors, new avenues to explore, we’re so used to working face-to-face with students. My main worry is I have no idea how well, or not well, my students are doing,” L said.
“Some students emailed or privately messaged me to ask for help or guidance, but there wasn't a lot of them. The homework was too good to be true, but I might be speculating,” he added.
PARENTS PLAY EXPANDED ROLE IN HOME-BASED LEARNING
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about changes in many aspects of life, and having to make sure their children kept up with their studies even as schools were closed could be a stressor for some parents.
For Simon Balan and Carrie Hew, who have four school going children including one son who was supposed to take the SPM last year, the situation has been challenging.
“It’s fortunate for us that we live in the urban part of Kuching (Sarawak’s state capital), so Internet connection is not a problem, and we have phones and computers so our kids can follow lessons,” said Balan.
The challenging part, Hew said, was monitoring and ensuring that their children were indeed concentrating on their lessons.
“Even though we work from home, it’s not as easy as you think. You don’t know if they’re focusing on what the teacher is saying, or if they just turn on Zoom and leave the video off, and do something else,” she added.
For their son taking the SPM, this meant relying on his word when he said he had no issue with classes.
But they made sure to include study time in their family schedule, mandating everyone to sit down to do their homework and revision after dinner.
In Tawau, Sabah, Valerie Ooi lamented that online classes did not take place until mid-November for her son, who just completed Primary 4 in a Chinese vernacular school. All homework was assigned through WhatsApp or Google Classroom prior to that.
"It was only from Nov 16 onwards when teachers began using Google Meet to have 'face-to-face' lessons with their students. That's because tests were going to be held on Google Meet and Google Classroom the following week," she recounted.
Ooi felt that even with more parental involvement, she and her husband were unable to help their child as well as a professional teacher.
"Both his parents have chemistry degrees, but how do you effectively impart primary school lessons to your kid? You still need a proper teacher who can effectively transmit the knowledge to primary school students,” she said.
Ooi also has another son due to start Primary 1 this year, and his home-based kindergarten lessons have not been smooth sailing either.
"The private kindergarten produced its own education videos, but the kids were not interested in the videos. He caused havoc or disturbed his older brother."
"Even though we followed the video to teach, the kid didn’t take the lessons seriously and only (wanted) to complete his homework. After some time, we tested the kid’s progress and found out he has completely not learnt his lessons," Ooi said.
Joey Wong, another parent in Lahad Datu, Sabah, also shared that her children’s schools did not provide online classes due to connectivity issues. Teachers only issued homework via WhatsApp and parents were expected to play the role of a tutor at home.
“Such a learning style lacks interaction. Students did not understand the lessons and there’s nothing parents can do.
“And yet the teachers kept rushing the students to submit their homework and even held online tests. This felt like self-deception,” she said.
On a more positive note, there was a silver lining in the year of disruptions, as Selangor-based Kok Mei Yee experienced.
Her son, Chong Zeng Yi, had just completed Primary 3. She was more relaxed about his health and safety. Learning from home also meant she could accompany him in some of his classes.
"This helped me to understand his studies better, and I also got to know his teacher and classmates.
"He has enough sleep and is in good spirits, so studying isn't a problem. But there is a lot of free time, so it can become a little monotonous," Kok said.
Family life has also improved, she said, as her son participated in housework and the increased free time allowed for more family conversations and activities.
"We do a lot of home activities, like camping in the living room. His father also accompanies him to watch movies and discuss homework, so their relationship is very close," Kok noted.
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There are indications that lockdown and school closures may have exacted a mental toll on students and parents.
Students not only had to deal with being confined at home nearly 24/7, but also the anxiety of missing out on their studies.
Counselling psychologist Katyana Azman told CNA that the number of her counselling sessions has gone up since the pandemic broke.
“We used to get probably two new clients a week and that was our usual turnover. But since the start (of COVID-19), we’ve gotten between eight to 12 new clients coming in for counselling each week,” she said.
“Mental health professionals are preparing for the huge mental cost when this is over, especially with young children.”
Katyana, who works exclusively with children and teenagers, said confinement, social isolation and uncertainty were prime conditions for developing mood disorders such as depression and anxiety-related disorders.
“The situation is especially telling for teenagers, for them not to socialise and many parents are kind of invoking this as a tactic to keep them at home.
“Like, the parents will tell them ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Don’t go out, you will get sick',” she said.
“This somewhat generates fear, that you can’t talk to your friend, and you can’t do this or that,” she added.
Meanwhile, as exam dates were shifted, demotivation was also a common problem faced by her clients who were sitting for SPM exams.
“It’s like any other human being. If you put them through a position where something is too challenging with no end in sight, we all kind of give up. That’s how the human brain works,” she said.
Working with a child coming in for counseling also means working with the parents, who themselves are on unfamiliar ground as they were stressed from working in the confines of home and dealing with household matters simultaneously.
“I ended up giving families techniques on how to navigate these issues. Because if parents at home are taking all of their frustrations and anxieties out on children, it’s not healthy. It also sets the standard for the child as to what behaviour is acceptable,” Katyana said.
BRIDGING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
Throughout the school closure period, one sticking point has been equipping schoolchildren with the tools to learn online.
While urban households in the middle and upper-income rungs could afford items such as laptops and expanded data plans to accommodate learning from home, others were not so lucky.
In addition, data connectivity was also an issue for rural populations, with geography and cost hindering online learning.
In Sabah, 18-year-old Veveonah Mosibin, a foundation student at a local public university, went viral after vlogging herself setting up a shelter in a tree, just so she could catch a data signal to sit for her online exams.
The Malaysian media has also carried news of students in rural areas going to great lengths to obtain a data signal for their online classes, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
In late November, three students from Kampung Gusi in Sabah’s mountainous Ranau district were injured, one severely. This happened after the suspension bridge, the only local area where there was a data signal, collapsed as they gathered to try and access the Internet.
In Sarawak, teacher Sambau Dugat was featured in local media after taking his students and their parents on a jungle and hill trek of over two hours in Lubok Antu, near the Kalimantan border, in search of a data signal.
Similarly in Kelantan, Mohd Azmi Ahmad set up a shelter on a hilltop for his daughter, undergraduate Nurlieda Khaleeda Mohd Azmi, to access the Internet for her studies and semester exams.
In July, Minister for Education Mohd Radzi Md Jidin said in a written parliamentary reply that 36.9 per cent of students did not possess any devices which allowed them to follow online lessons, based on a survey of 670,118 parents of 893,331 students between March and April.
Only 5.8 per cent owned a tablet computer, while 46.5 per cent had to rely on smartphones.
L, the teacher in Melaka, said while the digital divide among students in his school was a mild problem, less well-off households were still affected by the shift to online learning.
“For instance, one household might have only one phone, or the dad holds the phone, but he needs to go out to work. Certain households have more than one kid and both are in different levels of schooling, but they only have one phone to work with, that’s a challenge,” he said.
From E’s perspective, connectivity was more of an issue in Sabah.
“For those earning lower incomes, or to save money, a prepaid plan might have saved money in normal times. But now, I have students who end up having to top up their prepaid data every day,” she said.
Non-governmental organisations and some politicians have launched campaigns to equip more students with devices. One of them, Rotary District 3300, which comprises 72 Rotary Clubs covering Peninsular Malaysia (except Melaka and Johor), initiated "A Student A Laptop" charity campaign in August in collaboration with local private higher education provider Brickfields Asia College.
Rotarian Siti Subaidah Mustafa, who is heading the campaign, said the project had come about after they had raised about RM1 million (US$246,913) to provide emergency food relief for underserved communities.
“As the MCO slowly relaxed into CMCO and so on, we saw the need for education assistance as well.
“We came across students who said they couldn’t attend classes because they had no computers or the family had only one smartphone, so we started this campaign focusing on digital poverty in August,” she said.
The target was to serve 2,000 Malaysian students in both Secondary 4 and 5. They accepted donated laptops from the public and companies such as local telco provider Celcom.
“We also do post-donation monitoring, to make sure they’re properly connected and that there’s no hidden issues with the laptop after we refurbished them,” said Siti Subaidah.
In a written reply to CNA, the Malaysian Education Ministry stated it was aware of the limitations of online learning, and the challenges posed to families who did not possess any electronic devices.
Explaining that it was looking into the best ways to deal with the issue, the ministry pointed out that one such step is the "Cerdik Programme", a joint effort by Yayasan Hasanah (the corporate social responsibility arm of Malaysia's sovereign wealth fund Khazanah Nasional), the Education Ministry and other government-linked business entities.
The programme aimed to provide 150,000 students with devices and connectivity to access online learning by early this year, the ministry added.
"ADAPTIVE AND REALIGNED CURRICULUM" FOR 2021: EDUCATION MINISTRY
Aware of the effects of disrupted learning in 2020, the Education Ministry said it has planned for a transitional programme and an adaptive curriculum in the new school year.
In response to CNA’s queries, the ministry said it would implement a transitional programme when schools reopen to accommodate and prepare Primary 1 students who had missed out on a huge chunk of learning time in preschools.
This programme would help the students adapt emotionally, physically and socially to their new learning environments, as well as prepare them with basic literacy and numeracy before introducing the Primary 1 syllabus, it said.
“For other students in 2021, teaching and learning will be based on an adaptive and realigned curriculum. It is a curriculum that takes into consideration content not covered in 2020, the content for 2021, and the number of schooling days available for 2021,” the ministry said.
On Jan 2, the ministry reiterated in a press release that the 2021 academic calendar would begin on Jan 20 as previously scheduled.
This would involve even those in CMCO areas, and all these institutions' operations would be subject to guidelines and standard operating procedures set by the authorities.
“The ministry will continuously monitor the operations of these institutions along with the National Security Council and the Health Ministry," the ministry statement added.
However, the rising number of cases has some parents concerned. As of Jan 8, Malaysia has 25,140 active cases, out of a national total of 131,108.
Hew, the parent in Sarawak, noted that for the last few weeks in December, case numbers in the state capital of Kuching appeared manageable before spiking again in early January.
"So now I'm a little torn, and I'm more worried for the younger students, not just my own children," she said.
Hew, whose youngest will be in Primary 4 this year, added that the older kids could comprehend what was happening, as they already had a taste of what pandemic-affected schooling was like last year.
"More concerning, however, is how the schools are going to organise the flow of classes. Is everyone going to be let out at the same time and so on?" she said.