By Parkie Mbozi
IMAGINE a scenario where our children who have turned seven and are ready to start school (Grade 1) in 2021 unable to? Or the Grade 7s and Grade 9s who pass this year’s exams, which they are scheduled to write, unable to proceed to the next grade. Worse still imagine a scenario where come January 2021, schools remain shut because the COVID-19 cases would have reached uncontrollable levels owing to our inability to ‘invest’ in ‘flattening the curve’?
Without doubt these would be very unpleasant, disruptive, and unwelcome scenarios. Nobody wants, let alone envisages, that happening. However, it is noteworthy that these scenarios are not too distant possibilities. They can happen and the country should brace itself for that eventuality; what more when there is no known national plan, conversation, or engagement over re-opening of schools. We are all quiet and waiting for, God knows, the unknown. Yet other countries are well ahead of themselves in planning for the re-opening of schools under the ‘new normal’. Kenya, for instance, has begun engaging stakeholders and has released guidelines for the re-opening of schools in January 2021, following her earlier decision for total closure (all grades) of schools for the whole of 2020. The United Kingdom has decided to re-open schools in September 2020 and how this will happen is well articulated on the website of their Ministry of Education. Close to us, South Africa has had a long period of engagement and planning on phased re-opening of learning institutions. These are but only few examples to learn from.
The point is that re-opening of schools under the ‘new normal’ of COVID-19 is a very sensitive and complex matter that requires not only planning but also, and more importantly, engagement with all the stakeholders – parents, teachers, health providers, etc. Both planning and engagement require time. Unfortunately, we are not seeing or hearing any of that happening in our country. When our schools closed on 18th March, three weeks before the end of Term 1, no one knew how long that would be for. Many of us thought our kids would return to school in Term 2. It didn’t happen and there was no word until on 8th May when the President announced that only the examination classes would resume on 1st June.
How the pandemic unfolded would determine when the rest of the classes would re-open, so we were told. Since then what followed is another vague statement by the Chief government spokesperson, which summarises resolutions of the cabinet meeting held on 23rd July 2020. The statement, which is still circulating on the website of the Ministry of General Education, states that, “Cabinet also agreed that the remaining school classes that have not re-opened, including colleges and universities, shall remain closed. Cabinet would assess how the pandemic evolves before a decision is made on re-opening schools.”
With nothing else on the website, we are left to conclude that as far our Ministry of Education is concerned, there is nothing more to say about COVID-19 vis re-opening of schools than the above vague statement. No more no less, even with in-person learning going on across the country for the exam classes. Really? Contrast this with the 45-paged comprehensive guidelines on the website of the UK Ministry of Education. The guidelines provide frameworks on the following broad themes: Section 1: Public health advice to minimise coronavirus (COVID-19) risks; Section 2: School operations; Section 3: Curriculum, behaviour and pastoral support; Section 4: Assessment and accountability; and, Section 5: Contingency planning for outbreaks. Likewise, Kenya has announced a comprehensive plan for re-opening of schools in January 2021.
The question for us is, where do we go from here? What is up government’s sleeves on re-opening? As parents and stakeholders, we are asking questions, but we aren’t getting answers let alone be engaged in a conversation. We have heard speculations that all the kids may return to school in September when temperatures are expected to rise. Much as every parent would wish for that to happen, the question is, how realistic is it? September is less a month away and the pre-conditions set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for re-opening of schools have not been met. Equally the commonsense ingredients of planning, conversation and engagement have not taken place. Kenya has already rolled out a plan for re-opening in January 2021. Just what is our problem?
Worse still, re-opening of schools falls within the broad trajectory of re-opening of the country. Opening of the country is inter-twined with containing the virus, with ‘flattening the curve’ as the buzzword. Many stakeholders have voiced their concerns about our strategy, or lack of it, to ‘flatten the curve’. I am on record questioning the science behind our COVID-19 strategies through previous articles. In one of the articles I warmed that, “Only time will tell whether our trajectory and/or model is a better one.” True to my word, the growing numbers of BIDs (Brought in Dead) and new infections, averaging about 300 daily, is beginning to tell us the full story: the chickens are coming home to roost. Our leaders can today scare us with ‘1000 deaths per day in August’ and to enforce the same health guidelines they have themselves been abrogating but it is too little too late. The ‘flames’ are now (uncontrollable) ‘bushfires’, to borrow Prof Karim’s terminologies.
The conversation about the re-opening of schools is a global phenomenon. The reason is simple: whatever choice a country makes has repercussions. Science (socio-psychological and biomedical) seems to favour letting our kids go back to school. The United Nations Children’s Emergency (UNICEF) sums up that” schools do much more than teach children how to read, write and count. They also provide nutrition, health, and hygiene services; mental health and psychosocial support; and dramatically reduce the risk of violence, early pregnancy and more. And it’s the most vulnerable children who are the hardest hit by school closures, and we know from previous crises that the longer they are out of school, the less likely they are to return.”
There are other scientific reasons which favour re-opening of schools. First, the COVID-19 stats across the globe, Zambia included, show that children are less susceptible to acquiring and dying from the pandemic. Similarly, some modeling studies suggest that school re-opening has a very insignificant effect on wider transmission in the community. “Outbreaks in schools are inevitable,” says Otto Helve, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare. “But there is good news.” So far, with some changes to schools’ daily routines, he says, the benefits of attending school seem to outweigh the risks—at least where community infection rates are low.
The WHO recommends several actions and requirements that national governments should put in place to ensure the safety of children and school staff while at school. It recommends their customization to the special circumstances of the school and for the type and level of the learning institution. For your benefit I will reproduce them. The purpose is to demonstrate that meeting all of them require time, engagement and resources, a far cry of where we are as a country.
Policy, practice, and infrastructure: Ensure the necessary resources, policies and infrastructure are in place that protect the health and safety of all school personnel, including people at higher risk.
Behavioural aspects: Consider the age and capacity of students to understand and respect measures put in place. Younger children may find it more difficult to adhere to physical distancing or the appropriate use of masks.
Safety and security: School closure or re-opening may affect the safety and security of students and the most vulnerable children may require special attention, such as during pick-up and drop-off.
Hygiene and daily practices: Hand hygiene and environmental cleaning measures should be in place to limit exposure. Schools should consider the training of staff and students, a schedule for daily cleaning, availability of hand hygiene facilities and national/local guidance on the use of masks.
Screening and care of sick students, teachers and other school staff: Schools should enforce the policy of “staying home if unwell”, waive the requirement for a doctor’s note, create a checklist for parents/students/staff to decide whether to go to school (taking into consideration the local situation), and consider options for screening on arrival.
Communication with parents and students: Schools should keep students and parents informed about the measures implemented to ensure their collaboration and support.
Additional school-related measures such as the immunization checks and catch-up vaccination programmes: Ensure continuity or expansion of essential services, including school feeding and mental health and psycho-social support.
Physical distancing: Physical distancing of at least one metre between people should be implemented in the school premises and the classrooms. This includes increasing desk spacing and staging recesses, breaks and lunch breaks; limiting the mixing of classes or age groups; considering smaller classes or alternating attendance schedules, and ensuring good ventilation in classrooms.
To conclude, the educational, developmental, and societal impacts of having schools closed are undoubtedly real. Re re-opening of schools is not a private matter for a few to decide for the rest of us. There is too much at stake. Let’s engage on the way forward.
The author is a media, governance and health communication researcher and scholar with the Institute of Economic and Social Research, University of Zambia. He is reachable on pmbozi5ATyahooDOTcom.