The surge in online learning in Malaysia and the rest of the world during the coronavirus outbreak highlights a wide range of priorities to consider – from innovative teaching methodologies to a need to focus as much on emotional health and wellbeing as much as we do on academics.

Over the past few months, we have seen a wide range of issues affect people across the world which have left a lasting impact on everyone. However, it is clear that those who are worst hit are those who are socio-economically disadvantaged. In the semi-urban sections of Penang to the outskirts of Sabah, a large majority of students are faced with new teaching formats and methodologies. They are shifting their learning experience from physical classrooms to online learning, which to the average Jane may seem like a long-lasting school holiday but to these students, an overhaul of their everyday routine. With overstretched home and/or mobile Internet plans, shared by many household members, students are finding environmental barriers to be an added challenge to the already existing connectivity issues.

Mohd Nazri from SMK Tun Syed Shah Berakbah, noted this fact when he said, “I am the youngest of six siblings in my family, so when I wanted to go onto Google Classroom, I had to wait my turn to use the computer and use the Internet. I would miss the class entirely.” Despite having the motivation and desire to study and attend online classes, like many students during MCO, Mohd found himself in a situation which was not conducive to online learning. However, he also mentioned the ease of accessing his teachers’ and school counsellors’ support on WhatsApp, as it is a platform that requires less data and can be accessed easily from his own mobile phone. With data and a device, Mohd was one of the lucky ones!

Another student, Athiyah from SMK Taman Widuri was happy that the WhatsApp method was also used by her school, however she also told of a rough start for her when school closures were announcedand the Movement Control Order was put into place. “We had group chats on WhatsApp and even though it isn’t the same as being in school, it was nice to know that I could talk to someone if I had any problems. I was confused at first, and then I became quite worried about my studies and felt lonely.”

In many instances, the Covid-19 situation sparked conversations about the emotional wellbeing of students, teachers and school counsellors. With an increased need for support from all sides, their jobs were essentially round-the-clock and 24/7. “Some students would only have time and privacy at night to talk, so I would get messages at two in the morning and I have no choice but to be there for them. If not, I would not know what is going on in their lives and may miss the chance to provide them with the support and guidance they need,” said En. Shaarin from SMK Bayan Lepas. When asked if there were any tips to share with other teachers going through the same situation, his colleague and other school counsellor Pn. Hani said that, “in our school, we are lucky to have two school counsellors, En. Shaarin and myself. It really makes a difference when there is at least one male and one female counsellor. You reach a wider group of students, because the reality is, a female student would be more comfortable talking to a female counsellor.”

The varied experiences shared by students and school counsellors illustrate the different ways in which students and school counsellors cope and manage  during such a stressful period, and in hearing them reflect, it is clear that we have much to learn from their stories and how they tried to find every opportunity to learn, develop and engage with their communities, despite all the challenges in place.

This article is written by Nur Marina Abdullah, FINCO Mentor Penang Activator. If you wish to get in touch, kindly email her at [email protected].