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COVID-19 implosion in schools



HEALTH experts have warned of a COVID-19 implosion at boarding schools with unvaccinated pupils at a high risk of catching the deadly virus during the third wave of the pandemic.

The warning came after St David’s Bonda Girls High, a boarding school in Manicaland province, reported 74 infections on Wednesday — about 70% of the 105 cases recorded nationally on the day.

The same school recorded 145 cases on Friday last week while Embakwe High School in Plumtree recorded 91 cases on the same day.

According to situational reports released by the Health and Child Care ministry, Umzingwane and Sacred Heart Girls High schools in Matabeleland South province continue to report new infections, including 101 cases recorded on Monday this week.

The two schools had 519 active cases as at Wednesday, the highest among the 10 provinces, the report showed.

More than 608 cases have been recorded in schools since April 8, with health experts describing schools as new super spreaders and “reservoirs” of the virus which could result in a spike in community infections.

“We have a big problem. Not only at boarding schools, but even at day schools and at higher education institutions,” Mpilo Central Hospital acting chief executive Solwayo Ngwenya said, adding that it was worrisome that people were letting their guard down on preventive measures against the virus while new deadlier variants were posing serious threats.

“There is an urgent need to prevent the continued spread of COVID-19 in schools.  Some schools may not be able to conduct tests so the number of pupils who are actually positive of the virus could be higher.”

Medical and Dental Private Practitioners of Zimbabwe Association president Johannes Marisa warned of the detection of new variants in the closed environments of schools.

“There is a high risk of having mutant stains in schools where pupils are confined in one small community and sometimes where cases are undetected due to limited testing capacities within most learning institutions,” Marisa said.

“New variants occur after mutations in the structure of the virus, hence it is possible that we can get mutant stains in Zimbabwe. If we have a vicious strain in schools, as the situation is in Brazil — where the young people are the most affected, then we will be doomed.”

Labour unions representing teachers have regularly raised concerns over lack of testing facilities in schools as pupils are not part of the prioritised people in the ongoing vaccination programme.

But at a post-Cabinet briefing on Wednesday, Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa said government was aware of the COVID-19 situation in schools, adding that it was under control.

“Cabinet was informed that on 16th April 2021 more outbreaks were reported at two boarding schools, namely: at St David’s Bonda Girls School in Manicaland and Embakwe High School in Plumtree,” Mutsvangwa said.

“One hundred and forty-five (145) and ninety-one (91) learners tested positive, respectively. Government would like to reassure the nation that the situation is under control and all the cases are mild and asymptomatic.”

Experts in the education sector also said it was difficult to contain the spread of coronavirus in schools, because it is difficult to enforce adherence to COVID-19 regulations in schools.

“Children need to be encouraged to follow the World Health Organisation COVID-19 protocols,” Zimbabwe National Teachers Union leader Manuel Nyawo said.

“They are not like adults who understand why we have to follow the preventative measures. Without teachers, to enforce these regulations, pupils don’t comply, therefore, there is a huge risk that they will  transmit the virus to each other as indications are that COVID-19 is already in schools.”

Primary and Secondary Education minister Cain Mathema on Wednesday failed to give a satisfactory response to legislators in the National Assembly, who demanded to know the government’s long-term plan to ensure the safety of learners in schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ngwenya said authorities needed to have long-term plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools and other learning institutions.

“Schools constitute a very large proportion of the country’s population hence they might have challenges in conducting tests frequently,” he said.

“Testing is not the solution to curb the effects of the virus. There is need for long-term measures to minimise the development of new cases in schools.”

Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights secretary Norman Matara said there was a need for the government to address the situation in school because the current vaccine specifications did not permit young people under the age of 16 to get vaccinated.

“If there are no teachers in schools, then we have a problem on preventing the spread of COVID-19,” Matara said.

“Cases might be spreading faster in schools because pupils are not following preventative guidelines. Government should hasten to address the impasse with teachers so that schools operate under the laid down standard operating procedures where the regulations against the spread of coronavirus are religiously followed. Unfortunately, without that, cases will continue to rise as there are no other ways of curbing the spread of the virus besides abiding by the World Health Organisation protocols.”

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