It’s back to school in Zimbabwe. . . but





THE phased reopening of schools, which starts tomorrow with three examination classes, has brought with it relief and headache among stakeholders.

A lot is at stake!

The  Government announced the phased reopening, following the fall in Covid-19 infection rates and the successful preparations done in all schools to ensure a safe learning environment.

Teachers for examination classes — Grade Seven, Form Four and Upper Sixth are already back at school while the rest of the teaching staff returns to work on March 17.

Other students are expected to be back in class on Monday March 22.

Unsurprisingly, the move has largely been applauded.

However, education experts warn authorities should not be tempted to treat resumption of class like “business as usual”.

The Covid-19 induced long break, stretching close to a year for many students, is believed to have had adverse effects on pupils.

Yes, some students have successfully kept momentum on their studies through online classes and hiring private tutors, but that has not been the case for many.

Exorbitant data costs, network challenges and lack of apposite gadgets inhibited some learners in their quest to go virtual.

Financial constraints created by the lockdown also meant most parents could not afford to pay for extra lessons.

As a result, most pupils had literally “abandoned” school.

Psychologist and University of Johannesburg post-doctoral researcher Dr John Ringson notes the need to “recondition” learners’ mindset.

“Remember that during the long break, a lot was also happening and it could have stuck to their (students) brains. There is need for a process to calibrate them which is something we cannot do overnight,” he said.

Dr Ringson believes all hope is not lost.

“ . . . considering that the human brain is elastic in nature, it will not be a huge challenge for learners to adjust.”

But fellow psychologist Mr Keith Chakanyuka fears the worst.

“Most pupils’, especially lower grades, are no longer mentally prepared or excited about going back to school. Even the older kids, imagine a year not doing school, some were now into hustling, making money, and getting them back to school is certainly going to be a challenge,” he said.

Mr Chakanyuka recommends schools to engage child psychologists or education experts.

“We need all hands on deck now more than ever. Parents, guardians and teachers need to combine effort in guiding students back into the learning groove. Learners also need to play ball for this to work.”

Shocking/Fear

Idleness of children because of the pandemic did not make it any easier for pupils, particularly girls, to remain in school.

By December last year, it was reported that over 400 girls from four districts of Manicaland dropped out of school owing to a host of factors, chief among them pregnancy and early marriage.

“It was never my intention to leave school. However, I am pregnant and have since moved-in with my long-time boyfriend. Our relationship got serious during the lockdown. My aunt knows the guy and I have her blessings,” said Cecillia who was supposed to be going for her Upper Sixth.

Some are torn between.

“I was getting a few dollars, daily, for assisting my father’s friend at his garage. This made me realise that I am a natural mechanic. To be honest, I am not upbeat about going back to school. I am a Commercials student at Marondera High School and I don’t think it links with my love for automobiles,” said another student who only identified himself as Tapiwa.

Some of the students have been exposed to social ills namely prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse.

“It’s a good thing schools are being reopened. Books keep us busy thus we have little or no time for mischief. What is not right is to keep schools closed. Two of my friends are now pregnant and will not be joining us as we resume class. It is disturbing,” said Chiedza a student from Harare High School.

Her colleague from Hermann Gmeiner High School in Bindura quickly weighs in.

“Most learners got a scare when Covid-19 hit in schools last year. Having to go back to school before the pandemic is over is quite disturbing. We have not yet been vaccinated which makes school a scary place for us because of the numbers involved.

“Maybe there is a need for a lot of counselling to be done especially to those who tested positive last time. Another issue is, will we be able to cover up for the lost time without going under undue stress?”

During the last school term, 300 learners, teachers and staff tested positive for Covid-19.

Among schools where cases of the coronavirus were detected are Waddilove, Chinhoyi High, John Tallach, Prince Edward and David Livingstone.

Remedy

Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education officials, working in conjunction with the Ministry of Health and Child Care, is making sure that the measures to avoid spikes of the coronavirus are in place.

These are informed by World Health Organisation guidelines.

Under the protocols announced by the Government, classes will be smaller with more teachers being employed.

The Government has been on a whirlwind campaign to employ qualified, but jobless teachers to allow the splitting of classes.

Open distance learning and e-learning will be enforced while teachers and learners are being prioritised in the ongoing national Covid-19 inoculation exercise.

$600 million was set aside by the Government and disbursed to needy schools that had to upgrade their sanitation, enabling them to reopen safely without risking a spike in infections.

Where learners cannot exercise social distancing, there will be rotational school attendance.

Dilemma

Secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Schools Development Committees/Associations (ZSDC/As) Mr Everisto Jongwe said the opening of schools was coming at a time when most parents might not be having money to buy school uniforms and fees.

“We are coming from the lockdown and the festive season. Most parents will find it very difficult to fulfil their obligations,” notes Mr Jongwe.

He, however, said the opening of the schools must go ahead as planned.

“There has never been the best time to open the schools. The environment might not be that conducive, but we have to ask ourselves if we can continue to keep the children at home,” added Mr Jongwe.

Parents, though happy with the development, remain cautious.

Lockdown restrictions affected income sources for many, particularly those in the informal sector.

Only those classified as essential services were allowed to operate before the measures were relaxed early this month.

“The schools are set to reopen mid-month, when most parents would not have received their salaries. Authorities should have taken this into consideration. I have three children at school and the opening dates are not favourable at all,” bemoaned Mr Farai Masango.

According to the 2020 Primary and Secondary Education strategic plan, at least 27 percent of school-going age children fail to attend school because they cannot afford the fees.

Mrs Annie Chisungo, an informal trader, pleaded for mercy from school authorities.

“Initially we had saved for school fees, but unfortunately, lockdown came and we were forced to dig into the savings hoping that we would cover up later,” she said.

“While we support the idea of schools opening, may the authorities kindly consider giving us more time to hustle for the fees while our children go to school.”

A Harare-based teacher Mr Gift Nhepera was in agreement.

“Schools should cast aside fees issues and let all learners resume class. Parents must be given a longer grace period to make payments. At such a time as this, we need to focus more on having learners in class and getting them mentally focused at the same time covering up on lost time,” he said.

But there are some like Ms Hazvinei Matewu that feel the pandemic is not yet over, thus school should remain closed.

“In my view, we need to first make sure that we win the battle against Covid-19 or at least first vaccinate every learner and teacher,” argues Matewu.

However, her sentiments are sturdily dismissed by Ms Nokulunga Muthuphe, mother to a Grade Seven learner.

“School is the safest place for learners to be. At home, they spend most of their time playing on the streets and by now they have forgotten most of the stuff learnt last year, so we have no choice but to get them back to class.

“While we are concerned about their safety from Covid-19, we still cannot afford to have them on the streets all day anymore, life has to move on. What happens if the pandemic lingers for years?” queried Ms Muthupe.

Unity of Purpose

Dr Peter Kwaira, an educationist, said stakeholders need to jointly look for workable solutions.

“This is a win-win situation. There is need to reopen the schools, but we cannot ignore other factors such as safety. We have to weigh-in, look at these factors and come up with a position,” Dr Kwaira said.

Several parents have since the start of the Covid-19 induced lockdown made effort to keep their children abreast with studies.

Some capitalised on online classes while others hired private tutors.

“I could not afford online lessons or enrolling my children for private lessons. However, I made sure they still maintained their normal school timetable, at home, throughout the long break,” revealed Gweru-based Mai Panashe.

Tsanzaguru Primary School teacher, Mrs Winnie Siankwimbi notes a lot needs to be done for learners to quickly adjust.

“We need all stakeholders to come on board, psychologists also need to work closely with us in re-grooming these learners back into learning mode. It is sad that some of the learners dropped out during the lockdown with some girls even falling pregnant. This has negative effects on their peers,” reckons Mrs Siankwimbi. – Herald