Working During A Pandemic – Part 1

The experience of working during a pandemic affects us differently. For office workers, companies have no other choice but to embrace the reality (and efficiency!) of working from home. For some, their jobs are at stake or on hold because physical attendance is required, and the latter is what happened to some of Hasanah’s partners.

2020 forced many of our partners and beneficiaries to hit the pause button. As project implementors, instead of being on the ground, they were stuck at home due to the Movement Control Order (MCO).

To understand their reality, we spoke to the teachers that are based in Sabah and Selangor to see how they are coping with the new normal and doing something that they have never thought of doing so soon, teaching online.

Teaching During a Pandemic

During the interview, contained in a laptop are Cikgu Anuthra and Leona, a great example of this rapid adaption- all the way from Tenom, Sabah. The teachers are collaborating with our partner, CHUMBAKA, on a project to reduce the digital gap in their town by building an Innovation Centre. All that came to a halt in 2020.

Online class in session

Being used to teaching in a classroom, Cikgu Anuthra and her colleagues never expected online teaching to commence so soon and sudden. And yet it happened, and the catalyst was a global virus outbreak.

As infections rose, schools were closed, students were asked to remain at home. Teachers however were figuring out how do they teach online.

“It’s a different ball game when it comes to teaching online. There are vast teaching platforms and resources available and that made it even more difficult because we don’t know where to begin.”, said Cikgu Anuthra. She continued, “Some of us just don’t know how to teach online.”

Unlike classrooms, teachers will be staring at the many faces of their students boxed in a laptop screen. If they are unlucky, none of the students will turn on their cameras and teachers would have no idea if they were listening or not. Regardless, the teachers must reappropriate their content to make sure students are engaged with the material presented, and most importantly they do not stop learning just because there is a global pandemic.

Students gone offline

But that is only assuming if the students own a device or even internet access. From Cikgu Anuthra’s experience, laptops are a luxury and most of her students do not have their own mobile phones. Patch internet connection in the rural areas also does not help.

“In our school, about 20% students own laptops, and the remaining would use mobile phones”, said Cikgu Leona. But even then, mobile phones are shared among other siblings. She added, “Mobile phones usually belong to parents, and sometimes when they have more than one child, the device will be shared amongst how many children they have to attend online classes.”

Students submitted their homework via WhatsApp

Many students from Sekolah Menengah Jenis Kebangsaan Chung Hwa Tenom are of underprivileged background and live in rural areas. Some live 40 km away from the school and internet coverage.

Cikgu Leona recalled when the first MCO announced in March, one of her students who lives in a rural area was not able to reload his mobile prepaid for two months. That is two months of no internet and learning.

The teachers persevered and still wanted to carry their responsibility by reaching those who have access to the internet. “We did online classes for students who can join us. We know that it wasn’t enough but at least we tried something to keep the learning process going,” said Cikgu Leona.

The digital divide in Tenom is wide and the school was a space for students to stay connected and keep themselves busy. MCO had left many students disconnected from the internet and education and this was worrying because with free time and nothing to do the students are not only no longer learning but also at risk of contributing to social problems and becoming victims themselves.

The aftermath

“COVID-19 affects rural children differently compared to urban children. When confined at home in their kampungs (village), they fall back into the phase of “When you don’t go to school, what else do you do?”, she added, hinting at social issues happening within the rural areas.

During MCO, three students dropped out of school due to undisclosed reasons.

In August 2020, MCO was lifted and schools resumed. The students were back but struggling with the new normal. What used to be a vibrant social space, the classroom became a restricted environment where imaginary borders were created to avoid any risk of potential infection.

The aftereffects of the digital gap were magnified as students returned to their classrooms. Teachers noticed the disparity of knowledge amongst them as some had access to online learning and some did not.

Urban schools

The challenges of online learning were worse for rural schools, but urban schools too suffered especially for students who belong to B40 background. We talked to Cikgu Suzana who teaches at Sekolah Kebangsaan Sri Serdang, Selangor. She is working with our partner Mediafoundry, to inculcate awareness and appreciation amongst students to solve real-life problems using art and science.

Cigku Suzana spoke of challenges being faced at both the level of the students and teachers. “Online teaching was challenging mainly because many of my students don’t own a device of their own, and internet connection at my place isn’t so stable.”, said Cikgu Suzana.

Whilst internet connection stability is beyond her control, Cikgu Suzana figured out a way to maximise her online class attendance. “Many of my students have to borrow their parents’ laptops or phones, but they can’t do that during the day when the parents are working. Because of that, I started my classes at 8 pm. When the parents are at home busy preparing dinner, my students can tune in to my online classes.”

Learning during a pandemic

But even when school resumed, her students’ attendance is not satisfactory although she understood why. Many parents are still worried about their children’s safety due to the virus therefore it is normal for Cikgu Suzana to see some 20 students be missing in class.

Work smart

“I have to work smart to make sure my students can learn”, said Cikgu Suzana. “I am in a Whatsapp group with their parents, and after a lesson in the classroom, I will take photos of the notes on the whiteboard and send it to the group. At least there’s something for them to learn and work on”, she added.

Cikgu Suzana is a believer in virtual learning and she emphasised the importance of learning about Information Technology to leverage virtual teaching. “Regardless of if you’re young, old, or about to retire, you have to know a thing or two about ICT”, she said. During the MCO, she organised a few knowledge sharing sessions to teach her colleagues on the various apps available that can be used for online teaching.

Cikgu Suzana sharing her experience teaching online.

The new norm

2020 felt like a year where we learn how to adjust and adapt. For Cikgu Anuthra, Leona and Suzana, they were thrown into the deep end to figure out how can their students learn despite the pandemic. To make things even more complicated, not many of their students own digital devices especially those that are of B40 background. It is a double whammy when they don’t even have internet coverage at home.

Despite the challenges, the new norm for the teachers is embracing online teaching. Whilst it is not perfect, the teachers use whatever tools they must be in touch with their students to make sure they obtain an education. The harsh reality however is that the pandemic reveals the great disadvantage when a student does not have access to digital devices and internet access.

Working During A Pandemic is a three-part article series that focuses on the perspectives of beneficiaries, partners, and funder in their work within the 3rd sector.