COVID-19 and the paralysis in the education sector have widened inequalities between pupils from elite and poor backgrounds.
BY Phyllis Mbanje
Pupils in rural areas and the urban poor are bearing the brunt of the salary impasse between the government and teachers.
“COVID-19 and the reopening of schools in the midst of a job action by teachers have worsened inequalities in accessing education, with the poor suffering the most,” Great Zimbabwe University (GZU) lecturer Simbarashe Gukurume said yesterday.
Gukurume was speaking during a discussion convened by the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) on the staggered reopening of schools after a six-month closure induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said while the majority of private schools were not affected that much, pupils from poor neighbourhoods were losing out on education.
“What the private schools simply did was to shift to online learning because probably the infrastructure was already in place, but it is not the case for the urban poor and those in the rural areas,” he said.
Teachers downed tools in September when schools reopened for examination classes and efforts by government to end the strike have failed, with schools opening for the last batch last Monday, amid teachers’ ongoing strike for better working conditions.
The strike has forced some parents and pupils to petition government to postpone end-of-year examinations, but authorities have insisted the examinations will go ahead.
Speaking at the same event, education rights defender Pride Mkono said rural pupils were the hardest-hit by both COVID-19 and teachers’ industrial action.
“In rural areas, it is not only about COVID-19 and teachers’ salaries, but school feeding. Poor families have been further affected because pupils used to be fed at school and because the schools are closed, most of them are starving at home,” he said.
He said government had no comprehensive plan for such schools and the bulk of these children cannot attend school because they are hungry and would rather stay at home, even if teachers were to report for work.
“We have heard that President Emmerson Mnangawa who had gone to officially open Marovanyati Dam in Buhera expected a huge welcome from teachers and students, but the school was virtually shut. He was shocked that there are no teachers and children are not going to school,” he added.
Mkono bemoaned the lack of preparedness on the part of government on handling COVID-19 threats at schools.
“The ministry issued guidelines on what schools needed to put in place in order to be COVID-19 compliant, but there has been challenges with this.
“They have not provided the requisite resources for teachers to be compliant with regulations.”
“Most schools cannot afford sanitisers and have no running water. Most cities are experiencing severe water shortages and schools have not been spared.
“There are also issues around testing. No testing has been done in rural and public schools and pupils and teachers are just going back to school.”
He added: “All this leaves both the teachers and pupils extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.”
A researcher with RAU, Tony Reeler said all the issues raised were intersecting with poverty. “Families are not able to feed the children,” Reeler said.
He urged communities to take a more active role to be able to manage the pandemic.
“There has not been a strong enough policy by the government to adopt an inclusive approach to COVID-19 but instead, it has relied more on a command approach of ‘do this, do that, lockdown, pushing people’.
“If you want children to observe social distancing, it is partly a responsibility of teachers, but also families and communities. We need to broaden the discussion on who is responsible for safety of students.”
Meanwhile, Primary and Secondary Education ministry spokesperson Taungana Ndoro said students were prepared to write examinations.
“When you write Grade 7 examinations, you are being assessed on your primary schooling not just Grade 7.”
He said the same applied for Form Fours who are tested on what they have learnt in secondary school and not limited to the last year.
“Learning continued throughout the lockdown, there were radio lessons and hard copies were distributed to remote areas. We had online lessons and serious students were learning and should be prepared,” he
Responding to concerns that there had not been enough consultations on reopening of schools, Ndoro said his ministry consulted widely.
“We consulted teachers and other stakeholders. There may be a few schools, one or two without thermometers, but the rest have been screening,” he said.