KUALA LUMPUR - Eleven-year-old Hakim has not been to school since it was closed from October last year after a third wave of Covid-19 hit Malaysia.
Now he spends his days doing household chores in his family's two-bedroom flat in Kuala Lumpur.
"We can't afford to buy a new smartphone, let alone a tablet. I wish we could get even just a cheap tablet so he can join the online classes at his school," his mother, Madam Liana Malik, told The Straits Times.
"He misses school and wants to be a good student as he feels it is a chance to improve our lives. But he finds it hard to catch up and revise on his own, and we don't have a printer to print out worksheets sent by the teacher," said the 44-year-old hotel worker.
Malaysia announced on Jan 2 that government schools will reopen as scheduled on Jan 20 despite new Covid-19 infections staying stubbornly high. The number of daily cases on Thursday (Jan 7) hit a new record high of 3,027 cases.
Parents and experts have differing views on whether pupils should return to classrooms, with some fearing outbreaks, while others welcoming a return to in-person learning, citing a lack of access to online learning and poor mental health.
Housewife Julia Muhamad, 40, from Selangor said: "I really want my kids to go back to school because they need social interaction. However, as a parent, I am not without worries. But we can't live in fear forever and we need to try to resume a new normal life somehow."
Publishing editor Joanne Lee, 38, who lives in Johor Baru, said: "I will be sending my son to school. Based on how they ran things last year, I have full confidence in their SOP (standard operating procedure). They are even stricter than I am at home."
Bank executive Huang Paik Ling, 44, said her four children find it difficult to focus when learning online.
Aged between eight and 14 years old, they are easily distracted by each other, gadgets and pets at home. "They are physically present but their eyes are somewhere else," she said.
"Their energy levels are perpetually high due to the lack of physical movement, so it becomes even more disruptive. At least in school, they need to walk between classrooms, hall and canteen."
"I am also working from home, so it's almost like having two jobs at one time," she added.
On the other hand, housewife Rina Razali, 40, said she prefers to keep her children at home. "It feels a bit futile. I mean school reopens and then say there's a case of someone with Covid-19. Then the school will have a total shutdown with the rest worrying sick if their kids may have been infected as well."
The other worry is that reopening schools may further strain public hospital resources if there are outbreaks. The Health Ministry said this month it was mulling over home quarantine for asymptomatic cases as hospitals were dealing with a high number of cases.
Dr Sazaly Abu Bakar, a professor and director of the Tropical Infectious Diseases Research and Education Centre at Universiti Malaya, said: "Before schools open, they should first do random samplings of children from the different parts of the country or states to determine the community transmission rates. If it is very low to low, perhaps then they can allow reopening, making sure of full compliance with the preventive measures."
Professor Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud, an epidemiologist with Universiti Malaya, said: "There should be a proper assessment of where schools and kindergartens can open and where they cannot, and where online learning needs to continue."
He noted that there has been a "lost generation" this past year in terms of schooling and the level of education received by children in Malaysia has been unequal.
"Some children have managed to receive some online instruction, while there are many others who have not due to a lack of devices and patchy Internet access as well as a lack of online material suitable for the national curriculum."
In the time that schools and kindergartens have been shut, a comprehensive plan should have been drawn up to address the issues surrounding schooling, he said.
"An online learning plan to enable students from lower-income families to continue online learning needs to be in place. Perhaps there should even be a scheme to loan laptops or tablets to schoolchildren who do not have such devices and for ensuring that low-income families get the Internet support they need," he said.
National Union of the Teaching Professions secretary-general Harry Tan said parents and teachers need to work together to help students keep up with their studies, especially those who lack the means to follow lessons online.
"They could personally hand over learning materials, send recorded videos or even do correspondence learning," he was quoted as saying by The Star yesterday. "Teachers are a creative lot and they adapted pretty quickly as they understood the need for change."
The last time schools reopened in June, more than 700 schoolchildren contracted the virus. Schools were ordered to close from October as more districts were hit by a resurgence of Covid-19 infections stemming from the state-wide polls in Sabah in September.
Schools were previously closed in March, with classes going online for some. The Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examinations, equivalent to the O levels, have been postponed several times, from last November to next month.