Spread of Covid-19 in Malaysia schools sparks calls for return to virtual learning

Nearly 5,000 Covid-19 infections in schools across Malaysia have been reported this year.
Nearly 5,000 Covid-19 infections in schools across Malaysia have been reported this year.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - Nearly 5,000 Covid-19 infections in schools across Malaysia have been logged this year, fuelling calls for a return to virtual classes amid growing concern among parents about in-class learning.

National Parent-Teacher Association president Assoc Prof Mohd Ali Hassan said the situation was worrying.

"The Education Ministry and Health Ministry should take immediate action by closing down schools for the time being until the situation is stable," he told Straits Times.

"We are worried that infections can spread if safety protocols are not followed when visiting public places such as Ramadan bazaars and shopping malls," he said.

The delay in vaccinating teachers also meant they are susceptible to contracting the virus, he added.

According to Health Minister Adham Baba, 83 Covid-19 clusters involving the education sector have been recorded this year, with 4,868 infections as of April 20.

"From these 83 clusters, 49 clusters involving 2,617 cases are still active, while 34 with 2,251 cases have ended," Datuk Seri Dr Adham said in a statement on Wednesday (April 21).

Parents have also expressed worry over a lack of transparency, with incidents of Covid-19 infections spread by word-of-mouth instead of by official announcements by the school or authorities.

Opposition MP and former deputy education minister Teo Nie Ching last week (April 17) questioned why the Education Ministry had not been providing daily Covid-19 updates involving schools.

Along with the dearth of transparency, an apparent lack of clarity on procedures is also creating frustration among parents, with schools allowed to remain open even after cases are detected.

Following public disquiet over the matter, Deputy Education Minister Mah Hang Soon declared on Wednesday (April 21) that any school with even one confirmed Covid-19 case will be closed for two days.

"Schools with positive cases will be closed for two days. The school can be disinfected completely, and the teachers, students, and parents will have an emotional buffer space, which will prevent unnecessary panic and misunderstanding," Datuk Mah told the Chinese-language Sin Chew Daily newspaper on Wednesday (April 21).

In Sabah, one religious school in Kota Kinabalu has recorded 72 infections.

In Johor, at least 27 schools were closed this week following infections among staff and students, while 19 schools in Selangor were also closed after cases were detected.

But Ms Teo said that she had received at least five complaints on April 21 where schools were confirmed to have cases but were not shuttered.

"Parents still have to send their children to school. When asked why the headmaster or the principal did not issue a notice to close the school, they said they have yet to receive any official letter authorising them to close the school," Ms Teo said in a statement on Thursday (April 22).

While home-schooling may not be ideal for all students, some parents feel it is better than exposing their children to the virus.

"If my child doesn't go to school, she will lose out because her school does not do remote learning. But at the same time, I am worried about the virus. I have been feeling sick thinking about this, waiting for the government to close physical schools," legal officer Noor Aida, 42, told ST.

Others are worried about non-compliance to safety protocols, called standard operating procedures (SOP) in Malaysia, on the part of other students and their family members.

"I have faith in my children's school SOP. What I don't have faith in is how parents conduct themselves outside, whether at work or when shopping for basic necessities. Anytime you do not follow SOP when you are outside, you open yourself and your family members to possible exposure. And the worst of it is that schools are the ones suffering the brunt from these poor decisions," said home-maker Mary Gan, 41.