HomeOpinionThe quandary of reopening schools

The quandary of reopening schools

By Takavafira Zhou

It is a fact that schools closed in early June and attempts to open for second term have been futile due to the escalation of Covid-19 cases in Zimbabwe. Recently the government announced that schools must prepare for reopening. It also urged parents to prepare to buy PPES for their own children. Various reports from Ministry of Education spokesperson Taungana Ndoro have also claimed that the ministry has distributed radios for use by pupils in schools. Other reports indicated the government promises to extend the national e-learning strategy to 400 more schools through the provision of free internet and to connect 180 rural schools by the end of 2021. The Minister of Primary and Secondary Education, Cain Matema, recently told parliamentarians that schools are ready to open and that he is only waiting for cabinet to give him the green light to do so.

What is clear is that as of now the government has no fixed position and is constantly prevaricating depending on the mood of the day and officials involved. The government’s conception of reopening schools lacks clarity and scientific explanation in light of the escalation of Covid-19 cases. It is also not a product of engagement with teachers that are critical players in the education system. The greatest challenge with government is self-pollination that in essence produces weak decisions. This is further aggravated by command-and-control systems that are unproductive in the education sector. The best way forward in the education system is to introduce reforms and make decisions that are a product of engagement or broad consultation with teachers. Positions informed by research, educational taxonomy and professional ethos are better and more acceptable than hap hazardous meddling and muddling through.

Fundamentally, schools cannot open at a time we are witnessing escalation of Covid-19 cases across the country. As of now the government has vaccinated 5,5% of the total population that is now more than 16 million. The government has no capacity to vaccinate 65% of the population that is regarded as a control measure to the spread of Covid-19 together with frequent hand washing, social distance/isolation, and wearing of masks, among many other things.

Contrary to Taungana Ndoro and other ministry officials’ statements there has not been any infrastructural developments in schools. There are still bloated classes and congested hostels. Nothing has been done to navigate across the challenges. Worse still the $750 million purportedly given to schools to buy Covid abatement equipment has not filtered to schools. Above all, the government has no capacity to test the 140 000 teachers, nearly six million learners, and ancillary staff before they congregate in schools. It would be suicidal and genocidal to rush to open schools without an objective assessment of schools’ readiness to open.

Sadly, ministry officials are merely visiting schools to justify their claims of T&S allowances rather than carrying an objective assessment. It would have been better if the assessment teams comprised ministry officials, teacher trade union officials and health officials. In light of the foregoing, the visits to schools by education officials are doing nothing other than registering a fait accompli.

Our candid opinion as PTUZ is that schools can open for face-to-face lessons from mid-September onwards when high temperatures together with the current vaccination process are expected to lead to a decline of Covid-19 cases. In the meantime, there is a need for a paradigm shift in educational pedagogy in order to assist pupils until the environment can allow face-to-face learning in schools. It is beyond reasonable doubt that the government-championed radio and television lessons have dismally failed. Contrary to media reports alluding to distribution of radios to schools by the government, only a few schools receive money to buy at most four radios that have not been used in any school. While the efficacy of radio and television lessons is not in doubt it remains baffling how the ministry hoped this would work given the fact that more than 85% of the areas where students reside do not have Zimbabwean radio and television frequencies. Our research in PTUZ has shown that Ministry of Education-initiated radio lessons have reached less than 10% of the pupils since its inauguration. The much talked of national e-learning strategy has not taken-off, and has limited longevity and applicability in Zimbabwe in light of the fact that 65% of secondary schools and 85% of primary schools have no electricity in Zimbabwe. Worse still internet connectivity is a nightmare even in urban areas and worse still in rural areas. It is our humble submission that educational success can be achieved if government officials are prepared to walk over their mistakes and go beyond every stage where their efforts were wasted looking for a way forward.

In light of the foregoing gvt must seriously consider pedagogical methods initiated by teachers, viz, subject and class WhatsApp learning while students are in the safety of their homes. This is not to say that there are no challenges faced in this, but only to say it is the most accessible method with many areas even in rural areas where pupils could access connectivity. It also calls for parents and relatives’ involvement in availing their phones to their children/relatives to access work from teachers. Government can also use money from educational partners like Unicef to buy learning gadgets for pupils coming from poor backgrounds as well as pupils living with disability. All teachers would need are data bundles supplied by the government or Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education.

We reiterate our long-held view that well paid teachers in safe schools is a must for quality public education. We therefore urge the government to urgently address the welfare of teachers in order to intrinsically motivate them to continue to assist learners during these hard times. Government must broadly engage teacher unions in order to collectively shape the best reforms and policies for the education system, let alone guarantee successful implementation of educational reforms as teachers are critical actors as implementers of policies and reforms. As such, preparing to reopen schools without engaging teachers, and addressing the welfare of teachers would be ill-informed and palpably unjust.

We also suggest that there is no need for dividing the 2021 academic year into three face-to-face learning terms, but only two. So, if schools open in mid-September 2021, pupils should learn until mid-December. Teachers can find adequate time to prepare pupils for examination, which we humbly suggest could run from January to February 2022. Rushing 2021 candidates into examination this year may be tantamount to academic terrorism given numerous times schools have been disrupted by lockdowns and the need to give students adequate time to learn and prepare for exams.

It is our hope that the government will mellow down to a more constructive and professional approach rather than adopt an intransigent and irresponsible approach impermeable to reason and facts. Pupils are the nation’s best asset and must be nurtured and channelled towards their areas of potentials properly rather than being half-baked and pushed to the next level without sharpening their life-serving skills.

Our literacy rate must be more functional and not dysfunctional with students blending theory and practical experience in their learning that can enable them to function beyond the classroom.

We, therefore, want to remind the government that failure to listen to teachers’ professional advice is a recipe for disaster. Engaging in constructive dialogue with teacher unions can ensure that reform initiatives and policies are supported by the very people who have to implement them. A serious-minded government can draw on the knowledge and experience of thousands of teachers serving in every corner of the country, and devise smart policies that can resuscitate both learning under Covid-19 threat, and teachers’ leadership roles, and enhance development.

We, therefore, urge the government to ensure that our schools should become safe centres of learning and of our communities, and to respect the voice of teachers as they are closest to the classroom rather than pushing opening of schools and educational reforms down their throats. Through this way we can fulfil public education’s purpose as a propeller of our economy, an anchor of democracy and a gateway to economic, social and ethnic justice. This can only be achieved with well-paid and empowered teachers whose safe environment promotes professional innovation, dynamism, freedom and growth.

Teachers must therefore be supported to regain their leadership roles and provide a skills revolution that can foster sustainable development of a nation in line with Agenda 2030. That can only happen when their welfare, let alone their health and safety, and that of students, are prioritised. As such, we urge the government to put reason before anger in the gradual process that would see the successful opening of schools.

  • Zhou is an environmental historian, trade unionist and PTUZ president.

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