By Parkie Mbozi
WHAT most of us feared has come to pass. Learning institutions across the country are reopening under the ‘new normal’ without a plan, let alone adequate preparations on meeting the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for re-opening. In essence, ‘boma’ has transferred the responsibility of planning and ensuring that our children are safe and secure from itself to parents and individual schools and other learning institutions.
When officially opening the Fifth session of the National Assembly, President Edgar Lungu said, “I therefore, announce the reopening of all schools, colleges, and universities with caution between 14th September, 2020 and 28th September, 2020, subject to adherence to public health certification, guidelines, regulations, and also to allow for satisfactory, and adequate preparedness by all relevant authorities including parents and guardians.”
In this article I argue that re-opening of schools and other learning institutions is a double-edged sword, if you like. On one hand we needed the learning institutions to reopen to ameliorate the impacts of prolonged closures on the social, psychological, and learning needs of the learners, especially adolescents. In this era of social media, your guess is as good as mine on how our children were utilising their idle time. On the other hand, the health and safety concerns of learners, arising from hasty and unplanned re-opening, cannot be over-emphasised or downplayed. I lay my case by calibrating the article on the subject I published three weeks titled, Covid 19: Without Strategy Schools could remain shut indefinitely.
In the article I wrote, “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.”
I went on, “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.”
While the need to re-open the learning institutions at one time or another under the ‘new normal’ was inevitable and anticipated, the lack of anticipation and planning ahead is what is most bizarre and astonishing to say the least. The President’s speech confirms the lack of planning and preparedness on the part of both ministries of General and Higher education, despite both having ‘planning’ directorates and six months of closure. Part of his speech says, “the Ministry of General Education and the Ministry of Higher Education must come up with modalities that will ensure all pupils and students catch up after losing six months of the academic calendar, which may include revising the curricula. I also urge the two ministries to ensure strict compliance to the covid-19 measures. I am encouraged to reopen the schools in the context of the new normal as espoused by the World Health Organisation (WHO).”
The question is, why couldn’t the ministries begin planning for various scenarios much earlier given that they had six months to do so? On this I again calibrate the case I raised three weeks ago. I wrote, “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?”
During a ZNBC Kwacha Good Morning Zambia programme three weeks ago Ministry of Education PS Jobbicks Kalumba was urging stakeholders to advocate re-opening of schools, yet he should have been laying a plan and roadmap for the same. That just confirms that planning and strategizing was never a priority for the educational authorities. Why would he turn re-opening an advocacy rather than a planning issue on the part of his ministry? Likewise, to this date there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that resembles school-specific comprehensive guidelines on the ministries’ websites.
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 school guidelines of the UK and other counties that paid attention to planning for re-opening is a reminder that school-related guidelines are much more than revised calendar and basic health guidelines from thee Ministry of Health, as contained in Dr Kalumba’s circular dated September 14. The WHO has elaborated areas that need to be well thought about and planned for, which I outline below. The major concern is that data from some countries that have pioneered re-opening higher learning institutions show that they have now become the new Covid 19 hotspots. In the USA, for instance, 1,200 higher learning institutions reported a cumulative 88,000 cases as of September 15. This is a warning to the rest of the world.
Prevention and control measures to be put in place in schools
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 requires time, engagement and resources. Use them to judge our readiness.
WHO Guideline 1: 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.
Question and concern: where are the comprehensive policies or guidelines of the two ministries articulated, if at all? The Ministry of General Education website only links you to the general basic health guidelines contained on the Ministry of Health website. Nothing, and I mean nothing, specific to school environments. Sector-specific policies and practices take long to prepare and should have been the priority during the last six months.
WHO Guideline 2: 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.
Question and concern: do ALL our schools and higher learning institutions, which are already crowded, have the infrastructure and spaces for such physical distancing, in classrooms, dormitories, dining halls, etc? The September 14 ‘guidance’ proposes such measures as splitting classes, which was already happening under the ‘old normal’ and unattainable for most schools.
WHO Guideline 3: 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.
Question and concern: Do ALL the schools have facilities for screening, self-isolation and treatment and resources to take the children to the nearest health facility?
WHO Guideline 4: 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 learners, a schedule for daily cleaning, availability of hand hygiene facilities and national/local guidance on the use of masks.
WHO Guideline 5: Behavioural aspects: Consider the age and capacity of learners 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.
WHO Guideline 6: 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.
WHO Guideline 7: Communication with parents and students: Schools should keep students and parents informed about the measures implemented to ensure their collaboration and support.
WHO Guideline 8: 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.
To conclude, re re-opening of schools and learning institutions in the Covid 19 era is such a complex matter that it needed forward planning and resource allocation. We are in for a long haul with the pandemic. The onus is now on the relevant line ministries and stakeholders to pull the stops to make re-opening a success.
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.