Standfirst: After some three months ordered shut due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the reopening of schools next week for upper secondary students has been met with a mix of relief and trepidation. Parents readily admit to being worried about the safety of their children with Malaysia just entering its recovery phase.
Addressing such concerns, Education Senior Minister Dr Radzi Jidin, in an interview with the New Sunday Times, explains his ministry’s preparations and the standard operating procedures (SOPs) put in place to ensure a safe environment for students.
QUESTION: With parents constantly wondering whether it is safe to reopen schools, the decision on how and when to do so must have been a very tough one.
Answer: This (decision to reopen schools on June 24) with the SOPs in place may seem like a simple one, but it isn’t as it involves a big operation. The ministry (MoE) has been thinking about it for quite some time, studying, analysing and going through the most minute of details.
We have been in constant contact with the Health Ministry (MoH), consulting it over the safety of reopening schools and the SOPs. After thorough consideration, and with Covid-19 cases involving locals remaining below 10 on average, MoH finally gave us the green light.
We did not push MoH to expedite the process, but we waited for them to give the go-ahead. At the same time, we must understand that it is impossible to wait until Covid-19 is completely wiped out in order to reopen schools.
What went into the planning and development of the SOPs?
Planning for the reopening of schools started in early April.
We held discussions with the various stakeholders, primarily MoH and the National Security Council (NSC), when drafting the SOPs. We wanted the SOPs to be complete, outlining the guidelines from the moment students arrive in school until they leave the school compound.
The basic principle is social distancing, which is in every measure, and we also covered ways to implement them, ensuring the SOPs are feasible.
Together with the director general of MoH and NSC, we visited schools before publishing the SOPs to ensure they can implement the guidelines in the classrooms, canteens and laboratories.
MoH also waited to see if there would be a spike in Covid-19 cases post-Hari Raya, but the numbers looked good and the SOPs were approved.
The SOPs necessitate screening (temperature checks) at the gate for all students, teachers, staff members and other personnel entering the school. Several stations will be set up to facilitate the process.
If, for example, students have (Covid-19) symptoms, they will be placed in a designated isolation room, while teachers would contact their parents to take them home. In the classrooms, desks and chairs must be arranged one metre apart to ensure social distancing.
Some 500,000 Form Five, Form Six, Vocational and Malaysian Higher Islamic Religious Certificate students are returning to 2,440 schools nationwide on June 24, which falls on a Wednesday. Is there a particular reason why June 24 was chosen as opposed to a Monday?
This is a strategic decision. We need to ensure the children’s safety. Thus, we needed that two-day window over the weekend to assess the situation on the ground, review the SOPs, and analyse the components that may need to be improved.
This is to allow students to head back for schools again on Monday (June 29) to a better environment. I am not saying that things are not going to work out well. We tried the SOPs during our school visits and they worked very well.
However, we must be prepared for anything, including making changes to the SOPs if need be.
Thus, we decided to reopen schools mid-week on Wednesday and Thursday for Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Johor, and Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for the rest.
Will the SOPs be subject to a weekly or monthly review after the reopening of schools on June 24?
The SOPs will be reviewed continuously from time to time. As mentioned earlier, we will assess the situation within three days of the reopening of schools.
We have done our best to ensure the SOPs can be implemented. But it will be a continuous review because no one can predict now if the plans will be successful as it is the first time we are dealing with such a situation.
If about 10 issues are identified, for example, then we have to compile these issues and work on them to annex to the current SOPs.
Will selected teachers take on the role of ‘inspectors’ to ensure the total compliance of students with the SOPs at all times?
Teachers will monitor student movement and determine ways to enforce the SOPs. However, successful implementation is not just dependent on the teachers, but on the students as well.
According to the guidelines, food served at canteens, for example, will be prepacked. Students will have to line up, pay and collect their food, then head for their classrooms to eat. We do not want canteens to be crowded, hence students will be allowed out in stages.
They will also be monitored in classes as we do not want to see five students dining on one desk, which defeats the purpose of the SOPs. Schools will look into the specifics.
With the added responsibilities and workload, would this be a burden to teachers? They will have to prepare for lessons while keeping a close watch on students.
The new normal brings on different responsibilities for teachers, students and parents. As for teachers, their duties do not significantly differ from before since they were also required to help maintain discipline in schools and monitor students then.
This new normal has, however, allowed us to implement several measures that had been planned long before this. For instance, we had wanted to reduce the number of students per class from the previous 35 to 40 students. This has never materialised before due to limitations in space and teacher availability.
However, it can be implemented now to comply with social distancing where a smaller class with only 20 students each is a requirement.
I am confident that teachers are also very understanding. Teachers before this were teaching face-to-face in a traditional classroom setting. Now they have moved online. With selected secondary school students returning to schools, PdP (teaching and learning) via e-learning must continue for students who are still at home.
When teachers return to schools, PdP methods may be diversified since they have already established an alternative platform (online or distributing learning materials to homes). For example, requiring parents to pick up homework from school. It depends on the teachers’ creativity. We seek the help of teachers to ensure the SOPs are well implemented.
How can parents play a role to ensure compliance with the SOPs?
The help of parents in this is very much welcomed and appreciated.
They would have to ensure children who are unwell are not sent to school. This is extremely crucial because parents are more aware of their children’s condition while at home. Although we have a mechanism in place to check the students’ temperature in school, this would pose a risk to others.
Why were different timings introduced for sending children to school?
Globally, we noticed that parents prefer to send their kids to school instead of using school buses or public transportation.
Hence, we need to be prepared for this. We discussed the need to welcome students in stages to prevent overcrowding at the entry points.
It is also to avoid traffic from building up, especially during peak hours at frequently used roads or smaller roads. Parents would have to send their children and head for work. These are the matters we also studied.
Will the authorities conduct spot checks on schools prior to June 24 to ensure all measures have been taken in line with the SOPs?
We distributed the SOPs earlier to allow schools to study them and get a picture of our expectations and the measures that need to be carried out. These two weeks will give them enough time to prepare and avert last minute problems.
I am aware schools have started work on the SOPs. I will head to the ground along with my deputies and senior officers. I have also instructed the education department and district education offices to conduct spot checks, and discuss the mode of implementation with school heads.
The reason is not to punish schools that are ill-prepared, but we want to gauge the exact level of preparedness. For example, if we sample 50 schools in the first week and see only 25 are ready, then we would know what to work on to ensure full compliance.
Through random spot checks and sampling, we will collect data and evaluate how many per cent of schools are 100 per cent ready, 90 per cent or 50 per cent ready.
We will not wait until it is close to June 24 to do so.
Schools that fail to meet the requirements will be marked and will be checked the following week. It may seem simple on the surface, but it is a huge operation.
Are the SOPs universal and can they be implemented in all schools? There is some concern that schools, especially those in the rural areas and interior, will not be able to fully comply with the guidelines due to the lack of facilities and equipment.
When the trial run to check on the feasibility of the SOPs was conducted, I purposely included schools in rural areas. Based on my visits to the selected schools, we found that they can comply with the guidelines whether they are located in the urban or rural are as.
As long as the SOPs are followed, students and teachers will be able to teach and learn in a safe environment.
Apart from conducting checks, what are the other forms of assistance provided by the ministry to ensure schools are prepared to implement the SOPs?
The SOPs are not that hard for the schools to follow since it has been distributed earlier before the ministry announced the date of the reopening of secondary schools.
Apart from distributing the SOPs early to give time to the schools to make preparations, the ministry also distributed thermometers, hand sanitisers and other equipment needed to protect the children from getting infected.
I would like to extend my appreciation to parent-teacher associations that are actively helping in providing more thermometers and hand sanitisers to their respective schools. I want to assure all parents and guardians that the ministry has carried out adequate steps to ensure the health and safety of their children.
Apart from the safety of students, what about the SOPs applicable to teachers, for example, social distancing among teachers in the teachers’ room?
I am aware that there are teachers’ rooms in some schools that are considered cramped with their tables close to each other.
But don’t worry, this issue has been addressed. Schools can convert other spaces or facilities such as the library into a teachers’ room to enable social distancing.
During our rounds to check on the implementation of SOPs, schools, including the single-session ones, are able to carry out social distancing in the teachers’ rooms.
Apart from the implementation of the SOPs, will the ministry set up a support system to safeguard the mental health of students and teachers since they were away from school for quite some time due to the MCO and subsequent Conditional MCO?
This is why we immediately started working on the SOPs together with the Health Ministry and the National Security Council since the MCO period.
It has provided us with ample time to develop, tackle the shortcomings and fine-tune the SOPs to enable students to return to school immediately once the Covid-19 situation in the country was under control.
By having students back in school, teachers can directly evaluate their online and offline teaching methods based on the response of students and take the necessary action to ensure their students can catch up.
And by having students present in schools, the teachers will also be able to determine whether their charges need further assistance as well as check on their stress levels.
We are indeed doing our best to ensure that students can continue with their studies in a very safe environment.