School closures cost RM80 billion a year

THE Centre for Market Education and Bait Al-Amanah published a new policy brief, The Economic Impact of School Closures in Malaysia, authored by Abel Benjamin Lim, Fariq Sazuki, Benedict Weerasena and Dr Carmelo Ferlito.

The paper highlights how the policies implemented by the Malaysian government to attempt to curb the spread of Covid-19 – namely, the closures of educational institutions and, in particular, schools, associated with several lockdowns – have heavily weighed on Malaysian society and life, and proposes policy proposals for a gradual and safe reopening of face-to-face educational activities.

“Recurring to online learning for a prolonged time means being unable to recognize the true essence of education, which is much beyond learning – said Dr Carmelo Ferlito, CEO of the Center for Market Education.

The word education comes from the Latin educationis, the activity of edu-care, which means “to pull out, to extract”. It is thus clear that education does not exist without the virtuous relationship between a pupil and a master, who has the delicate task of pulling out of the pupil his or her best features, helping her or him in the discovery process of their very individual self.

If education was only the transmission of notions, then we would not need schools and teachers at all, we could just supply students with learning materials”. 

“There is a big risk which we cannot yet quantify – declared Abel Benjamin Lim, an economist at Bait Al-Amanah – The risk created by a zero-risk narrative, which has been present since the beginning of the pandemic.

We have a generation growing without proper education and convinced that it is possible to nullify risks in life. Such a generation will not produce entrepreneurs (which are risk-oriented by definition), but only civil servants. This will mean the loss of development opportunities for the country in the next half century”.

The paper’s main findings are:

- School closures seem to be a disproportionately heavy measure in addressing the spread of Covid-19 as the number of Covid deaths among individuals at school age is extremely low (for example, current mortality statistics illustrate that 0.02% of the total Covid-19 deaths in Italy and 0.04% in the United States are of school-age children) and therefore the risk can be minimised with less radical measures.

- According to the relevant scientific literature, school closures have not been proved to be significantly important in containing the spread of the virus.

- The enforced closing of schools generates educational losses in the learning process. In the pessimistic scenario, Malaysia has the highest learning losses across all the Asian developing countries, with an alarming rate of loss of 0.95 years (11.4 months).

- School closures are extremely regressive.

- From the economic perspective, school closures could cost, in terms of GDP losses, RM 80 billion per year. In other words, each year of disrupted physical school operations will cost Malaysia the equivalent to 33.3 days (1.11 months) of MCO 1.0-type lockdown or 114.3 days (3.81 months) of MCO 2.0-type lockdown. Under the current scenario, where it seems that the hiccup in education will last three years, the expected total future loss in terms of GDP is RM240 billion. 

- Each year of disrupted physical school operations could bring an expected economic loss per worker of between RM464.26 and RM 1,121.95. For individuals with a degree, such a loss could reach up to RM 2,054.24 per year.

The Centre for Market Education and Bait Al-Amanah proposes the following policy recommendations:

- A discussion for a safe reopening of schools should begin immediately.

- The gold standard for a safe reopening is given by an activity of mass and frequent Covid-19 screening, which means testing each student every Monday. This approach would allow early detection and the isolation of positive cases, preventing asymptomatic contagion and the development of heavy symptoms.

- The program could be financially sustainable thanks to the introduction of rapid testing, the efficacy of which is discussed in the paper.

- The limited cost of a programme based on rapid testing (USD 5/test) could easily be borne by schools and families, while the government should provide subsidies only for real poverty situations.

- Generalised policies should be suspended, where future school closures should be decided on a case-by-case basis and on grounds backed up by scientific evidence. In this regard, engagement with health officials is crucial.

- Education authorities must consider an inclusive approach to reduce the disparities between students once schools begin reopening, addressing the inequality created by lockdowns and school closures. 

- Finally, creative measures should be introduced in order to keep schools open. Among them, creating larger spaces, outdoor schooling, protective bubbles and effective communication. – May 31, 2021.

*The Centre for Market Education and Bait Al-Amanah.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

Sign up or sign in here to comment.