Making it work amid the new normal

The Ministry of Education

Teachers welcomed back students on June 2 when schools across the country re-opened their doors for those preparing for public examinations and other major assessments under the Ministry of Education (MoE) and the Ministry of Religious Affairs this year.

While the COVID-19 outbreak has been contained, the authorities continue to recognise the need for precautionary measures including staggered dates for different school year groups.

In the first week of school re-opening, students of Years 6, 8, 10, 11, 12 and 13 resumed face-to-face learning, albeit in the presence of measures to ensure safety and welfare of the school community.

The MoE also prepared an operations procedure ahead of the school re-opening to cover three main areas as advised by the Ministry of Health (MoH): The staggered opening of schools; guidelines; and social distancing and personal hygiene measures.

The ministry also gave out guidelines for school management for the second half of the current term as reference for schools and parents. The guidelines state that schools must refrain from all curricular and co-curricular activities involving assembly at all levels during the first phase of school re-opening to safeguarding students and teachers.

Small classroom size is a common sight at Sayyidina Abu Bakar Secondary School. PHOTOS: MOE
A teacher scans the QR code before entering Puni Primary School

The practice of social distancing is also emphasised across all schools, and in order to achieve this, small classes are encouraged to occupy larger rooms, such as conference rooms, libraries, halls and prayer rooms.

Based on the school’s capacity and facilities available at the student’s home, schools can decide on the number of students allowed to attend physical classes and those who continue to learn remotely.

Meanwhile, laboratory and practical classes are advised to be moved to afternoons or split into smaller groups.

Teachers’ role in student safety

In ensuring education runs smoothly and safely under the current conditions, schools actively work with the authorities to make sure that precautionary measures are implemented and observed.

Cikgu Nur Lailatul Aina of Puni Primary School said that her school has been diligently following the guidelines set by the MoE. They first established a task force as part of the business continuity plan (BCP) provided by the Department of Schools. Through the plan, duties were divided among teachers in terms of academic, home-based learning and security.

Other initiatives include the preparation of health files for students, teachers and school staff in the case of emergency; conducting dry runs leading up to school re-opening; support canteen operators to establish a pre-order system of food and beverages to avoid congestion during recesses; mandatory scanning of the QR code before entering the school compound; strengthening of communication with parents to ensure important information is being disseminated; planning routes within the school compound to decongest common areas; and putting up posters along the walkways and outside of classrooms. Meanwhile Cikgu Md Redza of Sayyidina Abu Bakar Secondary School (SMSAB) said his school was ready to adhere to safety requirements prior to the re-opening. Students entering the premises are required to undergo temperature checks as well as bring face masks and hand sanitisers to school.

School facilities are kept clean at all times, especially classrooms, laboratories, toilets, canteens, library and auditorium. The school has also established a patrol committee responsible for student safety, in addition to the rearrangement of classroom seating to conform to the recommended distance of one-metre between students.

Challenges in the ‘new normal’

Immense efforts have been carried out by schools to ensure all safety precautions are followed.

However, carrying out these measures in the ‘new normal’ is not without challenges.

For Cikgu Md Redza, it is in adapting to the ‘new’ environment for both teachers and students. Following more than two months of home-based learning, teachers and students are now required to recalibrate again to a new school environment while social distancing and other safety precautions are heavily emphasised.

Nonetheless, he said, the school population undoubtedly understands the importance of the new norm as a measure to reduce the risk of a second wave of COVID-19.Meanwhile, at Puni Primary School, the initial concern was in personal hygiene supplies, such as hand sanitisers, hand soaps and face masks as well as disinfectants.

However, the school, like many others, was thankful for the timely response by the Allocation and Supply Unit under the Department of Schools in providing the required items after they raised their concerns. With the supply secured, the school can now focus its efforts for ensuring all safety measures are in place.

Addressing feelings of parents

While there are understandable concerns from parents on their children returning to school, Dayang Sabariah, mother of a student at Puni Primary School, expressed her excitement over the school re-opening.

Awang Haji Abu Yamin, father of a student at SMSAB shared the same sentiment as his son will be sitting for his ‘O’ Level exams this year and he believed his son to be behind on his studies.

“The most important thing is my child’s safety and school readiness, though I hope that online learning continues to be carried out after the school re-opening,” he added.

Awang Haji Mat Rooe, father of a student at Puni Primary School, expressed his relief for the re-opening as he believed school is more conducive to learning than home.

Alhamdulillah, I believe students will now be more focussed and organised in their learning,” he said. “They will be able to pose questions to teachers directly, something that is challenging with online learning.”

Cooperation between teachers and parents

The teacher-parent rapport has played a key role in ensuring that the first phase of school re-opening remains smooth sailing. Through memos, letters and social media announcements, schools are able to remind parents of the importance of observing social distancing, keeping up with personal hygiene and other control measures during the global pandemic.

Puni Primary School, for example, conducted an online survey to find out the willingness of parents to equip their children with personal hygiene supplies and their awareness on the COVID-19 developments in the country.

The results were very encouraging as a majority of the parents was willing to support the school by all means necessary.

It is thus not surprising that parents like Dayang Nooraine and Awang Haji Mat Rooe prepare their children’s return-to-school packs comprising face masks, hand sanitisers and soaps.

Dayang Sabariah has taken a step further by educating her children on the safety guidelines.

“I explained to my children that it is important to maintain personal hygiene in order to break the COVID-19 chain,” she said.

“I packed their bags by including face masks, hand sanitisers, tissues, drinking water, food and pocket money, as well as reminding them to maintain distance from their peers in school, refrain from sharing personal items, avoid sharing food and always wash hands or use a hand sanitiser after toilet use.”

Rules and regulations at schools

As teachers and parents work together to ensure student safety in school, it is also important that the students comply with all the rules and regulations.

At the beginning of a class, teachers must remind students to obey instructions and rules.

Additionally, every movement, from when they arrive in school until the time they leave, should be monitored, especially in common areas such as the canteen, toilets and the library.

Teachers with shorter teaching periods are assigned to supervise students at scheduled times to ensure that the students adhere to the social distancing guidelines.

At Puni Primary School, according to Cikgu Nur Lailatul Aina, teachers are assigned to monitor students from 7am to 12.30pm including recesses.

Based on the preparation of schools and parents’ readiness to support the school re-opening initiative, it is clear that the awareness level of the current pandemic is high, and that stakeholders recognise the need to abide by the safety measures regardless of the inconvenience caused by the change in routine.

The new normal brought on by the COVID-19 crisis has undeniably changed how we conduct our life and education is no exception. As we adjust to the new reality, it is heart-warming to see cooperation among teachers and parents. As we move towards the phases of school re-opening, it is pertinent that such support continues, to allow for the best outcomes for the school community as well as the society.