KUALA LUMPUR - With half of the 2020 academic year in Malaysia massively disrupted due to the coronavirus pandemic, over 400,000 school leavers are facing the bleak prospect of being unprepared for an already twice-delayed exam that Malaysians believe could make or break their future.
Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), equivalent to the O-level exam in Singapore, is still scheduled to begin on Feb 22, having been first postponed to January from November last year.
The unrelenting wave of Covid-19 cases - hitting a record 4,029 new daily infections last Saturday (Jan 16) - has forced the Education Ministry (MOE) to limit Wednesday's reopening of physical classes to last year's candidates for SPM, as well as students sitting the pre-university Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Malaysia (STPM) and vocational school-leaving exams.
But many parents fear sending their children to school in the midst of Malaysia's worst coronavirus outbreak that has pushed the government to reimpose the near-lockdown movement control order (MCO) nationwide, save for some districts in Sarawak, as the nearly 40,000 active cases overwhelm the public healthcare system.
Already, nearly 40 SPM and STPM students have tested positive for Covid-19, forcing dozens of others into quarantine.
"Would you send your kid to school... with our location being under the red zone and risk getting infected before or during actual SPM?" Klang Valley-based homemaker Kristen Yeoh, 48, told The Straits Times. "I just want to know MOE's solution if a kid catches Covid during SPM. What's going to happen?"
This leaves some reluctant parents with no choice but to let their children join four million other schoolchildren stuck at home with the much-panned digital learning.
A survey by student-focused social enterprise Project ID last year found only a quarter of students favoured online learning, while the rest struggled without teacher interaction.
Not only has this teaching method been ineffective, but also many simply do not have the hardware or Internet access for online learning.
An MOE study at the start of the MCO that kept most Malaysians at home in March and April last year found four in 10 students did not own a device capable of following online lessons. As low as 6 per cent had computers, with nearly half relying on smartphones.
The government leaned on state-linked enterprises in November's Budget 2021 to contribute RM150 million (S$49 million) to buy 150,000 laptops for students, but the plan has yet to be rolled out.
"Parents and students should be given the option to collect textbooks from school for their home-based learning," said former deputy education minister Teo Nie Ching on Tuesday.
"MOE should know by now that a 'one-size-fits-all' approach which does not take into account variances in Covid cases, income level and digital gap, across districts and states, is not going to be helpful and successful," added the opposition lawmaker.
The erratic school sessions and unsatisfactory digital lessons have left SPM candidates - mostly aged 17 - and their parents anxious over the crucial exam.
"The uncertainty and postponement of dates have unfortunately resulted in more mental pressure and anguish. Some have lost their drive and find it difficult to maintain their motivation at what is arguably one of the major turning points in their lives," said a parent who wrote in to national daily The Star.
These problems have resulted in some wanting the exam postponed further, while others are calling for it to be scrapped altogether. More than 40,000 have signed a Change.org petition that points out how similar exams have been cancelled in neighbouring Indonesia and Cambodia.
The petition instead calls for results of trial exams - some schools have yet to conduct them - to be used for college applications, or alternatively, these institutions can conduct their own entrance exams.
"We hope that the MOE and public would put the students' mental and physical health first despite all the debates regarding the consequences of not having an actual SPM examination," said the petition writers.
Additional reporting by Hazlin Hassan