Malaysian students skip school over Covid-19 fears

Many parents have decided to keep their children at home as a third wave grips the nation. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - Madam R. Kamleshrani, a teacher at a primary school in Selangor, has seen a 50 per cent drop in attendance in her class.

Sixteen of her pupils have stopped attending classes over worries that they could become infected with Covid-19.

This is despite the Malaysian government maintaining that it will not shutter schools nationwide amid an alarming spike in the number of cases, even in schools.

"Many parents have expressed their concern, so they took the liberty to stop sending their kids to school," the 47-year-old teacher told The Straits Times.

And her students are not the only ones.

Madam Zaharah Ibrahim, 49, whose 12-year-old son goes to a primary school in Kuala Lumpur, said no one from his class turned up this week despite the school reporting no cases.

"I am keeping my kids at home for at least two weeks," she said.

A school in Kuala Lumpur's Bangsar suburb remained open on Friday (Oct 9) even after it reported two cases among students on Thursday.

None of its students showed up on Friday. The school later announced it would close until Oct 16 for disinfection.

On his Facebook page on Friday, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said the National Security Council agreed that the Education Ministry should be able to issue an order to close any school without waiting for the go-ahead from the Heath Ministry if anyone tested positive for the virus.

An informal poll in a Facebook group of Malaysian parents of primary school students this week showed an overwhelming number - 1,304 - voted for schools to be closed, with only 251 against.

Manager Ivy Sam, 41, is among those who want schools to remain open.

"If places of work can still be open, then schools should be too. Online learning puts a lot of stress on parents and it is not as effective as face-to-face learning," she said.

Many parents though have decided to keep their children at home as a third wave grips the nation, resorting to teaching them at home or allowing them to self-study. Some schools have gone back to offering online classes.

Only schools in red zones, or districts with more than 40 cases, will be closed.

But concerns are growing after Malaysia started recording triple-digit cases daily since late September, soaring to a record high of 691 on Oct 6.

Malaysia recorded 354 new cases and six new deaths on Friday.

Many of the cases can be traced to people who travelled to Sabah, where several districts are under lockdown.

Following statewide polls in Sabah on Sept 26, the virus has spread to other states, and at least nine government schools and one international school were affected over the last two weeks.

Six hundred students in Penang had to undergo screening after being exposed to a Covid-19-positive teacher who had previously travelled to Sabah with her husband, a politician, for the election.

But teachers face a quandary in how to ensure their students are not left behind, even as they stay safe from the virus.

"My concern now is how do we keep the kids safe, and also finish the syllabus? In my personal capacity, I've prepared an online learning module to help those who are staying home," said Madam Kamleshrani.

"And since kids get bored really easily, I decided to make it more interactive and fun, it will involve some physical movements while counting and answering questions."

For Madam Zaharah, she is not worried about her son and 16-year-old daughter falling behind in their studies, as her eldest, who has graduated from university, will help out.

Others are not bothered about missing lessons as long as their children are healthy.

But for some children, attendance may be more crucial to their development.

"I handle kids with autism and other special needs, so I take their attendance very seriously as I don't want them to regress. Luckily for me and my peers, our rehabilitation centre is very strict, everyone's travel history is screened," said occupational therapist Ain Mardhiah Luqman, 26.

"But if things worsen and the centre needs to be closed, I've already compiled exercises and activities for parents to try with their children at home."

Senior Minister in charge of Education Radzi Jidin said that any decision on the closure of schools will be made based on an in-depth analysis of existing data as well as detailed discussions with the Ministry of Health and the National Security Council.

"I have received many views and suggestions from various parties on the need to close schools when there is an increase in the number of Covid-19 cases," he said in a Facebook post on Oct 7.

"We are constantly monitoring the situation in schools throughout the country."

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