Saturday, December 4, 2021

Husband-wife van drivers can’t wait for schools to open again

Ismail Raja Mat and his wife Norhayati Muda have bills piling up and children who need to be fed.

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While children may be having mixed emotions about returning to school next week, for one couple in Taman Melawati, Kuala Lumpur, news that students would be allowed to go back to the classroom under strict health SOPs was the best they had heard in months.

Ismail Raja Mat and his wife Norhayati Muda had been driving school vans for more than 30 years when their routine came to an abrupt halt in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

With almost no other way of earning a living, and with bills piling up for the repayment of one of their vans, they were forced to live hand to mouth throughout the movement control order (MCO) period.

“I’m so grateful that the long wait is over,” Norhayati, 48, told MalaysiaNow.

“I’m speechless. I finally get to go back to work again.”

Pupils across the country who have been following their lessons from home due to health measures under the government’s MCO will begin returning to school in stages from Monday.

Standard 1 and 2 pupils will return to school on March 1, while other primary students will start school the week after. Secondary students meanwhile will start attending school on April 4, except for those in Form 5 who will start classes on March 8.

“I’m speechless. I finally get to go back to work again.”

Norhayati struggled to hold back tears as she spoke to MalaysiaNow about her family’s situation after the MCO was implemented last year.

Although they managed to survive thanks to the help of family members and neighbours, it was not easy.

Their eldest son, who works at a government hospital, was able to chip in about RM800 a month but this was not enough to cover the cost of living.

Ismail, 59, said his school van alone requires monthly repayments of RM1,200. He also has an outstanding electricity bill of RM500, and three of their five children are still dependents.

“My third child who is currently studying at the German-Malaysian Institute wants to postpone his studies due to our financial situation.

“I can’t let him do that. So I’m looking for ways to earn money to continue supporting his education,” he said.

His fourth child, though, will have no choice but to postpone going to college as there is simply not enough money.

For now, the former Form 6 student is working at a bakery to help his family earn some money. He also hopes to put aside a little for his tuition fees in the future.

“It’s hard for me to say, but I’m thankful that our children can understand the family’s situation,” Ismail said.

Strict SOPs

In order to go back to work, Ismail and Norhayati are ready to comply with the health ministry’s SOPs requiring students to wear face masks at all times and to use hand sanitiser.

“Students are not allowed to stand in the vehicle, especially for those taking the bus,” Norhayati said. “I was also told that the passenger limit will depend on the number of seats available.

Their hope is that the school year will go smoothly without another closure in a few weeks’ time.

“This new normal should be put into practice by students who travel in school vans, especially those in Standard 1.”

At full capacity, Ismail’s van can take 18 students while Norhayati’s can fit 14.

Norhayati said they would need to provide a list of names to the school management before picking up the students after school. This will be used for crowd control, especially at the school entrance.

Looking ahead, their hope is that the school year will go smoothly without another closure in a few weeks’ time.

“The current situation is hard to predict,” Norhayati said. “It’s possible that this will happen since the number of daily cases is still relatively high.”

Another problem is that fewer parents are still sending their children to school by van.

“Since many of them work from home now, they make their own arrangements for transportation. Now, we only get requests from the parents of Standard 1 kids.”

There is also no word on whether some parents who used to send their children to school by Ismail and Norhayati’s vans intend to continue doing so.

But things could be worse.

The couple had planned to return their home town in Kota Bharu, Kelantan, if there was no change in their situation. The cost of living in Kuala Lumpur is high, and they cannot afford to continue staying there if neither of them is earning a living.

“Luckily, schools are reopening,” Ismail said.

If all else fails and they are forced to stop driving their vans, they say farming will be their next choice.

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