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Connexion: Who is liable if Covid-infected students die?   

By Joachim Ng

A too-early reopening of public schools and government-assisted schools carries the danger of sparking another COVID-19 wave, adding new fatalities to the already high toll. What appears to have spurred the Ministry of Education’s decision to get students back to class for in-person learning from September 1 is the high rate of vaccination and also pressure from parents of students sitting for examinations.

Our Government must take heed of numerous flawed decisions overseas that kept the virus propelling forward. One nearby example is Thailand where glaring official blunders have been responsible for the latest wave in the country. 

It is possible that all the 413,000 teachers and administrators will have received their first vaccine jab by end-August. But how many students, if any, would be vaccinated by end-August? Unvaccinated persons run a high risk of infecting one another, and may also infect the vaccinated teachers. World data shows that many vaccinated persons have got infected, although usually in a milder way if they have had two jabs. 

While many teachers, parents, and students are keen on normal school life resuming, do they know that government schools are one of the three major frontlines in this Covid war? Topping the list are factories and dormitories. With schools closed, the majority of viral infections have been the factory and dorm clusters as these are the places with high numbers of stay-put crowds. 

Can we fight this war on three fronts? At 40 students to a class in large urban centres, public schools and government-assisted schools are crowded. This is unlike private schools which follow the international recommended limit of 20 per class.

What preventive measures can the schools take beyond mask wearing? The ordinary popular mask worn by just about everyone gives false assurance as it is only half effective. You must surely know of persons in your chat groups who got infected despite wearing such a mask. 

The Delta variant that everyone is now familiar with is a super-athletic virus with Olympic prowess and is able to stay airborne and infect within seconds any person who moves into its space. Which crowded school is able to beat this virus strain? The full lockdown imposed on June 1, instead of bringing down the numbers, saw daily cases triple from 5,000 in early June to 15,000 after mid-July and then 17,045 on July 25. 

Some commentators have tried to calm nerves by saying that the runaway numbers should be of no concern because serious cases are not many. “Don’t panic. It’s just a kitchen fire.” These soothsayers ignore the fatalities. 

On March 17, there were only 2 Covid deaths. Four months later on July 17, the Education Ministry announced that schools would reopen on September 1. The next day, July 18, the death toll registered 138. On July 19, the toll of daily deaths climbed to 153. On July 22, it reached a shocking 199. The day after it was announced that 49.2% of Malaysian adults have received at least their first dose of vaccine, the total accumulated cases in the country surpassed 1 million. A gold and a dud together. 

Over in the American state of Arkansas where the pandemic has been described by public health officials as a raging forest fire, the state’s health secretary Dr Jose Romero warned of a “surge on top of this surge” if schools reopen in September as targeted. Why is September a magical month for educationists? Is there a genie who will emerge from a lamp on September 1 to destroy all the viruses in school?

If there is no genie, who will be held legally liable if students die? A back-to-school order from the Malaysian education authorities cannot be disobeyed, and parents should weigh the risk of infection possibly causing death versus the reward of in-person learning, because school attendance will be full as students who ponteng may be penalised under standard regulations.

Why is the death of any student a legal issue? Every teacher is deemed to have given his or her consent to be in school because they have signed a contract of service with a monthly salary as their reward. If they die, no one is liable. Is there a contract for the parents of students to sign? If they have not signed any contracts, it should not be said that they are deemed to have given their consent for students to be exposed to the risk of death.

However, the Education Ministry can wriggle out of this legal entanglement by asking all parents to sign a disclaimer that says they will bear full liability for any sickness or death from Covid. Only with this signed disclaimer can a student be allowed to enter school. And of course, you guess right: half the parents will refuse to sign. This means school attendance will be slashed by half, and class sizes go down to 20 students.

That’s wonderful as you can only have properly regulated distancing if attendance is just half all the way — half in class, half at the corridors, and half at the gate.

Parents who refuse to sign the disclaimer must be asked to sign another document — a remote learning agreement — whereby they pledge to ensure that their children are present online. Parents must spend the money on getting Internet service, and all classrooms must have digital equipment to record every teaching session and transmit it online.

It is a totally unacceptable excuse to say that one school doesn’t have this or that, and all it has is a blackboard and white chalk. COVID-19 is not a surprise Pearl Harbour attack. Field experts had already issued warnings some years ago that a coronavirus pandemic was approaching because of the massive wildlife destruction, captivity, and trade in all regions of the world releasing deadly zoonotic viruses into marketplaces.

When is it a safe time for the Perak Education Department to compel all students to get back to school for in-person learning? Only when cases drop below 100 per day in the State. Cases are now above 400. Never forget that the virus attacks the weakest link. As long as there is a weak link, do not reopen the schools for physical learning.

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo.

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