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Malaysia: Education union pivots to address new situations caused by COVID-19 crisis

In Malaysia, the Sarawak Teachers’ Union has been responding to issues such as remote teaching and learning, students’ mental health, exams and gender inequality, all arising out of school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since 18 March, Malaysia’s federal government has been implementing a movement control order (MCO) as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. After several extensions, the MCO will remain in place until 9 June.

As a result of the MCO, all schools and academic institution have been closed. The order outlines that “all nurseries, government and private schools including boarding schools, international schools, training centres - Muslim schools in urban and rural areas - as well as primary, secondary and pre-university education institutions; public, private universities and vocational training centres must also be closed throughout the MCO period”.

Move to remote teaching and learning

The Prime Minister instructed the Education Ministry to implement home-based learning initiatives for the duration of the MCO to ensure children’s education would not be neglected during this period.

The Ministry of Education also issued teaching and learning guidelines to implement the MCO, including the MPE-DL learning programme, which provides a link to specific learning platforms, such as Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams. In fact, Malaysia has emerged as the second-largest country to use Google Classroom for online teaching during the MCO period.

Concerns over online learning

However, the Sarawak Teachers’ Union (STU) has highlighted issues and limitations faced by teachers and students concerning online teaching and learning methods, such as:

  • Limited internet access in rural areas - Students do not have online data to receive any information from teachers. In some areas of Sarawak, the internet connection is very poor.
  • Lack of electronic devices - The Ministry of Education conducted a study involving 670,000 parents and approximately 900,000 students. This revealed that the ownership of electronic devices to enable teaching and learning to be conducted at home is quite limited. It showed that only six per cent of students have personal computers, 5.76 per cent have tablets, nine per cent have laptops, and 46 per cent have smartphones.
  • Teachers are ill-equipped for the shift to remote learning. They lack the skills, training, and tools required for successful online teaching and learning.

Public exams cancelled

The Ministry of Education also announced the cancellation of various exams at different levels this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

After the implementation of the MCO, students have been worried about the fact that their academic schedule will be affected by the COVID-19 crisis and the lack of adequate education at home.

Students’ mental health

The STU warned that students’ normal routines have been disrupted and they have been forced to avoid social contact, which may lead to negative psychological outcomes. It reported that an organisation helping with mental health  issues, Befrienders Kuala Lumpur, had received a 13 per cent increase in calls, nine per cent of those related to the MCO.

STU staff home-based

Since the implementation of the MCO, the STU has also had to change its work practices:

  • Staff have been working at home while the STU’s offices are closed during the MCO period, and all members have been informed.
  • While working from home, STU staff frequently share news and useful information related to education issues in Malaysia to ensure that members are updated on current developments.

COVID-19 Fund

The STU and other trade unions in the national Congress of Union of Employees in the Public and Civil Services (CUEPACS) have contributed MYR10,000 (Malaysian ringgits) (about €2,100) to a COVID-19 Fund in Sarawak.

According to CUEPACS president Ahmad Malie, this contribution was made to support the Sarawak Government in taking and implementing preventive measures during the virus pandemic.

The fund was presented to the Sarawak representative, Datuk Ik Pahon, on 21 April.

Gender inequality

The education union has also stressed grave concerns about gender inequality as many female teachers are juggling remote teaching and childcare. This may prove especially stressful for those who may be unfamiliar with the concept of teleworking. Indeed, many mothers working from home have aired their grievances on social media regarding their lives under COVID-19, the enforcement of the MCO, and juggling the demands of employers and families.