KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's bid to reopen schools in stages from Sept 1 has been met with cautious optimism, as parents and teachers alike recall the chaos of Covid-19 spreading through schools when physical classes restarted in March, just as aggressive mutations of the virus were making landfall.
Today, the hyper-infectious Delta variant is fuelling the record-breaking surge, with five-figure new infections, and deaths averaging over 150 daily, despite months of stay-home orders. Worryingly, at least a dozen of those killed in the first half of the year were aged 18 or younger, double the tally for the whole of last year.
Stakeholders have called for clear standard operating procedures (SOPs) and strategies to ensure the return of millions in both public and private schools does not spark another surge in cases.
"I hope the (education) ministry has considered all factors, from the safety, health and preparedness of the schools and the states. And whether they are ready for face-to-face classes or not," said National Parents-Teachers Associations Consultative Council president Mohamad Ali Hasan.
The concern was echoed by Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia chairman Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim, who warned that "we must not let our guard down at any point in time".
Education Minister Radzi Jidin, when announcing the reopening plans on July 17, sought to allay such fears by promising that should there be a need for changes, the ministry will announce them earlier.
In June, he said the government had "several options prepared, which will be implemented based on the current situation", although he did not reveal details so as "to avoid confusion".
"We have plans to improve the current SOP based on what we have learnt. Covid-19 is dynamic. So even though we have plans A, B or C, we wouldn't know which one to go with until we know the situation at hand," said Datuk Radzi.
His predecessor Maszlee Malik had suggested on July 22 that priority should be given to schools in locations that have low Covid-19 case numbers or herd immunity and rural areas with less dense student populations.
Dr Radzi and officials in the education ministry did not respond to The Straits Times' requests for comment.
The key watch point over the next month, until a final decision is made, will likely be the rate of vaccination of teachers.
Coordinating minister for the Covid-19 immunisation scheme Khairy Jamaluddin said some 73.5 per cent of teachers have had at least one jab as at Tuesday, double the figure from five weeks ago. The proportion of those assigned to teach SPM and STPM - the equivalent of O and A levels respectively - classes has breached 90 per cent, he said.
Mr Harry Tan, secretary-general of the National Union of the Teaching Profession, believed that "the ministry has all the science, facts and statistics" and that teachers were given the "utmost priority" to ensure Malaysians can get back to their usual lives.
According to the National Recovery Plan announced by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin last month, the education sector was to resume only after average Covid-19 cases drop below the 2,000 mark, intensive care unit utilisation is at a "comfortable" level and at least 40 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated.
With an average of 15,000 new patients added daily this week, bringing the average below 2,000 in just weeks appears far-fetched.
This has raised concerns about whether students, especially the 400,000 facing school-leaving exams who are the most likely to return first, should also get a chance to be inoculated.
The Health Ministry has authorised vaccination only for STPM candidates and children between 12 and 17 who have underlying health conditions.