In Malaysia, updated till noon Feb 1, 2022, we have chalked up a total of 187 Covid-19 education clusters, which would surely stir up some attention, since it is 58.8 per cent of all active clusters currently in Malaysia.
How and when did this rise occur when schools were supposed to follow stringent SOPs? Almost all states are affected, very few spared. So we also ask the question — were there underlying reasons for it?
For this, the background must be the story of the returning Umrah pilgrims that brought back Omicron to the shores of Malaysia. On Jan 11, 2022, there were 16 such imported clusters from Saudi Arabia, seven of which had its index case with the Omicron variant, all since Nov 25, 2021.
The science has clearly shown how Omicron is more infectious compared to all other variants.
Hence, with these Umrah cluster individuals breaking home quarantine procedure, acknowledged by our Health Minister on Dec 25, 2021, you can imagine how the virus had been stealthily moving around in the community since then. Bearing in mind, this is definitely a spread already happening in Dec 2021, before students converged to their hostels for the start of school in mid-January 2022.
This is also not helped by the exposé of fake vaccination certificates being sold , a story that broke in mid Jan 2022. The demand is there obviously from persons who are “anti-vaxxers” who refuse to be vaccinated, yet do not want to miss out on benefits of being fully vaccinated, which are extensive, including access to services like banking or even entry into government agencies or shopping malls.
All these prepare a premise of students entering their schools, especially at residential schools where the kids do not realise that they may be carrying the virus from home or from those that returned from their Umrah pilgrimage, to the hostels. Such a scenario was denied in Kelantan, especially the Omicron part, persisting in the “things are under investigation” narrative.
Hence, when I posted on my Twitter comment on Jan 16, 2022, based on 36 education clusters as of noon, Jan 15, 2022, it surely was something not to ignore.
Lo and behold, the DG of Health mentioned it on Jan 17, 2022, acknowledging the sharp rise in education clusters, talking about the rise in respective EW (Epidemiology Week) for 2022 — a rise of 23 in EW1 and 42 in EW2.
The rest, as they say is history, with a slew of reports of various schools affected all round the country. At last count at noon Feb 1, 2022, the count of 187 education clusters is as follows: Perlis (2), Kedah (24), Penang (9), Perak (12), Selangor (26), Negeri Sembilan (15), Melaka (9), Johor (19), Kelantan (27), Pahang (19), Sabah (13), Putrajaya (1), and Kuala Lumpur (11).
The states or territories spared are Terengganu, Sarawak and Labuan.
Even in the division of the education clusters, a big majority are from residential schools. Like in Kedah, on Jan 24, 2022, there were almost 1,500 students positive, affecting 15 schools, of which 13 were residential schools and two day schools.
Another summary has the following breakdown of education institutions affected, updated till Jan 25, 2022, then at 107; of which 56 were under Ministry of Education, 26 under others (assuming religious schools), 22 of Higher Education and 2 from private institutions.
Hostels may have been the hotbed of education clusters due to a variety of reasons. We do not want to brand it a “violation” of SOP like what other news portals have done.
Instead, let’s look at it as a natural yet unavoidable circumstance in such an enclosed environment. Decision makers need to formulate a solution moving forward for school hostels.
Yet, we are now looking at not just the uptick in schools, but also in private learning institutions; colleges or universities. Sabah had a taste of it on Jan 31, 2022, again with cases in a private college originating from its hostel.
Now, many are currently enjoying this one-week Chinese New Year break. Yet it allows so many to travel all over Malaysia, and to return home to their workplaces and places of learning. SOPs have to be greatly hammered top down at every educational institution; public or private, tertiary, secondary, or even primary and nursery. Let the stakeholders take charge as their inherent responsibility or risk having their institution shut down when a case crops up.
Nevertheless, we must not be quick to penalise those who have been diligently observing SOPs so far and have had no cases. I speak for the majority of schools, secondary especially, as we see the impending SPM examinations in March 2022, even the practical exams in mid Feb 2022. All students need a proper learning environment and surely, physical teaching trumps any online classes.
Hence, I plead to the powers that be. Our students have suffered and endured enough with two years of incessant Zoom or Google Classrooms. It’s time to trust our fully vaccinated status, endeavour for our booster shots, and observe the SOPs of masking and social distancing, plus having activities with adequate ventilation. That is indeed the way forward.
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