While Covid-19 has disrupted classroom sessions across the country for well over a year now, the side effects of the health measures put in place to curb the virus spread have been especially hard for students in rural Sarawak where a lack of internet and basic infrastructure is taking its toll on their education.
In cities and urban centres, teachers and students have recourse to steady WiFi and the devices needed to conduct home-based teaching and learning, otherwise known as PdPR. Google Meet, Zoom and WhatsApp are familiar terms, and even those without reliable internet connection can keep up with their lessons through the various educational programmes broadcast on television.
For many schools in Sarawak, though, the situation is very different.
SK Nanga Oyan in Kapit, a small town on the bank of Sungai Rajang, does its best to cope with the announcements that trickle down from the top each time new measures are put in place.
But the most recent order for schools to close came at very short notice.
“We were shocked when we heard the announcement,” principal Mohammad Mobun told MalaysiaNow.
“Close all schools in red zones for two weeks? Imagine how chaotic it was that day. We only had one day to prepare all the learning materials our students would need for those two weeks.”
And settling lesson plans was far from the only problem.
Many of the students at SK Nanga Oyan stay at the school’s hostel throughout the academic year. When the order was made for schools to close, one of the most immediate questions for teachers was: how would their students get home?
“Who would send them back to their longhouse?” Mobun said.
The solution in the end was for the teachers themselves to make the trip. They went willingly, Mobun said – but it was tough going for both teachers and students, some of whom were barely seven years old.
Like many other rural schools in the state, SK Nanga Oyan is located near the crocodile-infested river of Sungai Rajang and is only accessible by water.
To get home, the students and their teachers had to travel miles. The longhouses located nearer the school were reachable in about 30 minutes but others took nearly two hours.
Fuel for the boats, the price of which varies from RM5 to RM15 a gallon, was also covered by the teachers. Some journeys required one or two gallons while others needed three to five for a one-way trip. It all adds up, but they have no choice.
“There is no proper road,” Mobun said. “The only option we have is to travel by boat.”
There is a path cut by loggers but the teachers avoided it as the road conditions are unsafe.
“If the school cannot be accessed by road, how can you expect internet here?” Mobun added. “It has been a year since the pandemic and we still don’t have such facilities.”
Even so-called basics for schooling like uniforms and stationery are a luxury for his students, many of whom come from low-income families.
“If the school cannot be accessed by road, how can you expect internet here?”
His school is still waiting for upgrades but that comes as no surprise to him.
“Many rural schools in Sarawak are left behind compared to our counterparts in West Malaysia and those in the town areas.
“How can we expect the pupils to perform as well as those in Malaya and in the towns if the school’s facilities are in such a poor state?”
But despite the challenges, Mobun’s hope is that his teachers and students will not give up.
Educationist Adam Prakash said while closing schools may help curb infections, the trade-off for children in rural areas leaves them all the more vulnerable.
Prakash, from the Sarawak Teachers Union, said education is their best bet for leaving the cycle of poverty into which they are born.
“We are not in favour of closing schools on a long-term basis,” he said, acknowledging however that closing schools would be the best move in the event that the situation turns “very bad”.
If children stay away from school for too long and are unable to follow their lessons through the PdPR method, the fear is that they will become detached from the system and lose interest in their education.
“It would need a lot of hard work to win them over again in the future,” Prakash told MalaysiaNow.
In Sarawak, he said, the problem is the same as it has always been: inaccessible areas cut off from connecting roads.
Over the years, education has come to be seen as something only accessible to those from the higher income bracket.
“We hope that there are plans underway to help students in rural areas, to make sure that teaching and learning will continue,” Prakash said.
“There are parents who will not be able to assist their children as they themselves are not very educated and are financially unable to provide gadgets for their classes.”
He urged representatives to do their part to improve the lives of their constituents.
“The government must prioritise rural development,” he said. “We have been independent for more than half a century but we are still so far behind in terms of facilities and amenities.”
Lacking the funds to achieve anything concrete, his organisation can only highlight the problems faced by teachers and students in rural and underprivileged areas.
“The time has come for everyone to walk the talk. Don’t let the future generations be robbed of their opportunity to improve their lives,” he said.