Datuk Dr Habibah Abdul Rahim, former Education Ministry director-general

MY tenure as the Education Ministry director-general from January 2020 to April 2021 was marked by never-before-seen challenges in my 34 years of public service.

Within three months of taking on the role, I had served four education ministers: Dr Maszlee Malik, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Dr Radzi Jidin.

The main challenge then was adapting myself to best support the changing leaderships as each minister had different styles, approaches and priorities.

But the Covid-19 pandemic was different because we – not only Malaysians, but also the world – didn’t understand it when it first presented itself.

There were a lot of uncertainties associated with it. And just when we thought we had gained a better understanding of it, the SARS-CoV-2 virus mutated and kept spreading.

Ironing out home-based learning and teaching

At the Education Ministry, our immediate response was to focus on firefighting. We wanted to ensure that teaching and learning could go on despite the disruptions brought on by school closures, and that there was no loss of learning among at-risk and vulnerable groups, including those living in remote areas and students with special educational needs.

A series of actions was therefore taken to support home-based teaching and learning (PdPR) such as the release of the Teaching and Learning at Home Manual, the launch of the Digital Educational Learning Initiative Malaysia (Delima) platform and the introduction of educational television programmes culminating in a terrestrial Education TV channel known as DidikTV KPM.

The PdPR manual specified three main modes of remote learning – online, offline and via the Delima platform, which we kickstarted in 2019 and launched in April last year.

Through Delima, teachers and students could access various resources such as videos, quizzes and games. We could also gauge the overall progress of remote learning through their usage of the platform.

Our educational TV programmes, on the other hand, were designed to meet the needs of students who had no access to learning devices or Internet connectivity. It was for this purpose that the ministry launched DidikTV KPM on Feb 17 this year.

The programmes were initially aired on two channels for two hours a day in April last year, before being broadcast on three channels for 11 hours a day by the end of 2020.

Parents play a vital role in ensuring that their children are up to date with their studies amid the pandemic. — CHAN BOON KAI/The StarParents play a vital role in ensuring that their children are up to date with their studies amid the pandemic. — CHAN BOON KAI/The Star

Other non-digital modes were also made possible through the delivery of modules or materials to students. Drive-throughs were set up so that parents could pick up the materials from schools or at designated areas closer to home.

Some teachers joined district health officers on the ground to deliver materials to the indigenous communities and those living in remote areas.

In some communities, we saw off-site learning such as in suraus, mosques and community centres, subject to the approval of the authorities.

On the operational side of things, all education-related decisions such as the opening and closing of schools fell under the purview of the ministry.

However, since the pandemic was essentially a security and health matter, we had to obtain approval from the National Security Council (NSC) and the Health Ministry (MOH).

Such a centralised organisational structure was necessary as it facilitated a highly coordinated and integrated approach to decision-making.

As we learnt more about the Covid-19 crisis, certain decisions devolved downwards, allowing room for flexibility and agility.

For instance, when Covid-19 cases were detected in schools, we gave the states involved the authority to enforce school closures as contact tracing and sanitisation efforts were being made.

We also set up tracking and collection of data such as daily reporting of Covid-19 cases among the school community, as well as student attendance during remote learning and in schools. Such feedback was important for decision- making by the ministry, NSC and MOH.A key takeaway from our handling of the pandemic was the importance of consulting stakeholders.

While we had such interactions with the stakeholders pre-pandemic, the crisis highlighted the need to increase them not only to secure feedback from the ground, but also to gain a better understanding of the decisions made.

For instance, after the first movement control order, the public and various stakeholders were worried about the safety and education of our five million students.

We sought advice from the NSC and the MOH before holding an engagement session with these stakeholders, including state and district officers, parents and representatives from private and international schools, various associations and non-governmental organisations.

There were differences of opinion, but we managed to reach a consensus on the actions to be taken in terms of reopening schools.

To further support this effort, the ministry released three guidelines within one and a half years that covered aspects such as the wearing of face masks, as well as the implementation of social distancing and hygiene measures.

Importance of teamwork

The stakeholders have risen to the challenges of the pandemic in many ways.

We received positive responses to the school reopening plan from parents, the community and local authorities. This included making sanitisation preparations, classroom arrangements, as well as entry and exit signage.

There were also people handling the traffic flow to ensure that parents dropped off and picked up students in an orderly manner. Such unity is truly commendable.

It was also heartening to see the ministry successfully carrying out examinations, namely the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) and Sijil Tinggi Agama Malaysia (STAM), and having the papers marked online in a timely manner.A lot of consideration went into this effort, not only in terms of ensuring the students’ safety and health, but also their readiness to sit for the examinations.

After being postponed three times, the SPM 2020 was finally conducted from Feb 22 to March 25 this year. The standard operating procedure and guidelines that we put in place were successful as only 0.7% of over 400,000 SPM candidates had to sit for the second session of the examination.

That was the first time we conducted the SPM with a second session to make sure that students were not penalised if they contracted Covid-19 or had to undergo quarantine.

It was also the first time we had 82 out of the 83 SPM subject papers marked online, which involved more than five million scripts.

Thanks to the ministry’s success in achieving these goals, school- leavers were able to enrol for their tertiary education or move on to the working world.

Towards a brighter future

Moving forward, we need to improve ourselves based on our handling of the pandemic.

Perhaps what is lacking now is an understanding of the amount of teaching and learning that has been covered through remote learning and whether the different modes are effective.

The way I see it, digital learning is here to stay. The role of parents and the community is increasingly important not only in the learning and cognitive aspects, but also the social-emotional aspect of students.

As we work on combating the immediate effects of the pandemic, we must also look at the future of education. Covid-19 has changed how we live, work and learn. These changes show that we need to prepare our children for the kind of knowledge, skills and competencies required by the future workforce.Policymakers need to seize this opportunity not only to address the Internet connectivity and device gap, but also the emerging needs in terms of necessary policy, content, training, infrastructure and infostructure.We must also strive to achieve the aspirations set out in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025. Can we achieve them?

I don’t think we can afford to say we can’t because of Covid-19. Even if some things can’t be carried out, many other areas can be tackled using different strategies.

In conjunction with National Day 2021, I call on all Malaysians to continue staying united as we battle this health crisis. It is also my wish that teachers, parents and the community further strengthen their collaboration with each other.

At the end of the day, how we prepare our future generation to be resilient and adapt to challenges is of paramount importance.

Datuk Dr Habibah Abdul Rahim is also the Tokoh Kepimpinan Pendidikan Kebangsaan 2021, a member of the National Recovery Council, an adjunct professor at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and a senior fellow at Institut Masa Depan Malaysia.

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