BY DESMOND CHINGARANDE
THE second phase of schools reopening today is set to increase the chaos in schools with teachers escalating their labour dispute with government over poor remuneration.
Zimbabwe’s school calendar has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic which forced government to close all centres of learning since March.
However, a phased reopening has been upended by the dispute between government and teachers over salaries. Teachers are demanding that their salaries be pegged at US$520 per month. This was their salary before the reintroduction of the local currency. They have also pushed to be paid its equivalent at the official exchange rate, which works out to $42 000 from the $11 000 they are currently earning, including the US$75 monthly COVID-19 allowance.
Today, classes are set to resume throughout the country for Grade 6, Form 3 and Lower 6 classes, but a shocking school fees hike, which has seen some government schools charging as much as $53 000, means many parents are unlikely to afford the cost. The ongoing labour dispute means there will be no teachers in public schools.
Already, pupils in examination classes at public schools have stopped going to school due to the absence of teachers. Early this month, Parliament heard that idle students had turned to sex orgies, drug abuse and stripping after going unsupervised due to the strike.
Teachers are unhappy that the government expects them to report for work, yet they cannot afford to pay school fees for their own children. While teachers are still refusing to go back to school, Primary and Secondary Education minister Cain Mathema (pictured) last week announced that schools were ready to open with 2 300 teachers having been recruited and an additional 3 000 to be employed in order to cover up for the gap left by those on strike.
Mathema also said that all schools had received COVID-19 personal protective equipment and that necessary arrangements to protect schoolchildren from the coronavirus had been made.
But Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) president Takavafira Zhou said parents were incapacitated to send children to school due to the exorbitant fees.
Zhou said teachers could not be expected to teach, while they can not afford to pay fees for their children.
“It is a fact that schools are charging exorbitant fees. Fees at boarding schools range from $25 000 to $60 000. They are wantonly flouting the government procedure of increasing fees.
Schools are supposed to present a budget to the ministry after a meeting with parents, and based on that the parents agree with school authorities that they can pay the fees,” Zhou said.
“Sadly, school heads sent to parents three exorbitant figures and ask them to choose one, and this is in contrast to procedures,” he said.
Zhou added: “It simply means that no teacher can afford to send his or her child to a boarding school. We will not accept a system that wants teachers to offer services to other people’s children that their own children cannot access.”
In Parliament, Mathema told MPs that schools will not be allowed to charge exorbitant fees, but government approved a steep hike of up to $60 000 per term for schools such as Gokomere and Silveira House which are church-owned schools, Rusununguko High School and Prince Edward School which are government-owned.
Mathema told NewsDay yesterday that no parents or guardians opposed the fees increases, adding that they (parents) know what to do when schools charge exorbitant fees.
“No parents have complained to the ministry, every parent or guardian knows what needs to be done,” Mathema curtly said.
He also said his ministry would deploy inspectors at every school to record truant teachers and establish staffing gaps before hiring more teachers.
He said around 25 000 teachers were on standby to replace those who were on strike.
Zimbabwe National Educators Union secretary Charles Chinosengwa said no teaching was taking place in schools. He added that Mathema should advise President Emmerson Mnangagwa correctly by giving him an accurate picture of what is happening at schools at the moment.
“No teaching is taking place in schools. We know they are threatening teachers, but we are not going ack. The minister must tell the President that no learning is taking place for examination classes. With more schoolchildren coming, no learning is going to take place until issues affecting teachers are addressed,” Chinosengwa said.
Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe representative, Nation Mudzitirwa said by opening schools, the government was pretending that all was well in the country.
“The government’s decision to open schools in the second phase is inconsiderate; teachers are highly incapacitated to report for duty. The government must first resolve the salary dispute with the teachers. Pretending that everything is normal in the middle of this education crisis is highly misinformed,” Mudzitirwa said.
“The government is repeating the same mistake it did on September 28 on the first phase when it frog-marched students to schools without teachers. Currently, students are going wild in schools because there are no teachers. The only solution to this education crisis is the restoration of a US$520 monthly salary that teachers used to earn before the government introduced austerity measures that have dehumanised and degraded the hardworking teachers.”
Despite the pleas by teachers to have their salaries reviewed, the government has threatened them with dismissal. Teachers have remained defiant.