AS the third wave settled, there was a huge outcry for the re-opening of schools, and I personally added my voice to the sentiments. And even today when asked, I would echo the same sentiments too. Prolonged closure of schools is not good for the pupils for several reasons. Not only do they lag behind in terms of their education and social development; they also get exposed to several hazards in society.
By Dr Grant Murewanhema
What quickly comes to mind is the risk of indulging in drugs, early sexual activities, teenage pregnancy, child marriages, and increased risk of experiencing sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). In fact, several of these reports have emerged, and especially a rise in teenage pregnancies has been widely reported, not just in Zimbabwe, but even in South Africa and other countries.
Older children who stay out of school for too long may never make it back especially in poor societies such as ours. Instead, they may end as laborers in places such as farms, mines, doing shift work, and informal trade, vending, cross-border trading, and in some instances, some may even end up in commercial sex work. Yes controlling the COVID-19 pandemic is crucial, but as it becomes obvious that the battle with the virus is going to be protracted, we seriously have to start thinking about the long term impacts on several aspects of human life that are being indirectly affected, and education is one of them.
What about online learning? This always seems an attractive option, but how great is it in our country? What is the access to online learning materials, the gadgets and data in our setting? A huge chunk of our school going pupils live in rural areas, or either have unemployed parents or parents who are civil servants. Therefore, the costs of data and access to gadgets that make learning an enjoyable experience may be prohibitive. And the experience of online learning will never be the same as physical learning in schools, in terms of physical, social and mental development. Children develop social skills and language through interaction with their peers. Schools also encourage children to indulge in sport, art and music, all which are great for personal development and early identification of talent.
The ever-widening socio-economic inequalities become even wider with differential access to education, and the children in the lower classes of the social indices of multiple deprivation suffer the most. The children in government schools are already greatly disadvantaged through lack of educational resources and widely reported teacher/educator attitudes as the government has adamantly refused to improve the working conditions of civil servants over the years. Like other civil servants, our teachers remain poorly paid, failing to access basic needs of life, and even failing to send their children to schools of choice. Understandably, this has eroded teachers’ attitudes over the years.
The COVID-19 outbreaks in schools are not unique to Zimbabwe, and were largely expected with the reopening of schools. World over, huge clusters of cases have occurred in schools, and they are not an indication for school closure. In closed school communities, such as boarding schools, the outbreaks are much easier to contain locally, with isolation of cases, effective local contact tracing and quarantining of contacts within the schools.
This helps to break the chains of transmission locally, without cases spilling over into nearby communities, which can trigger widespread community transmission. With day schools, especially in high density suburbs, affected children and their contacts must stay at home for the whole duration of isolation and quarantine periods. Reassuringly, whilst there have been isolated cases of bad outcomes in young children with COVID-19, the majority actually do well compared to the older people, and exhibit minimal symptoms. The greatest fear is that these children may act as vectors to older and more vulnerable individuals at schools and in the communities, including their educators and parents.
The call must be on the government to create safer learning environments within schools. Teachers, parents and all eligible individuals work in schools need urgent access to vaccines if they are willing to be vaccinated, and government must also come up with a clearer position/policy regarding vaccination of children in the 14-17 year old groups. Other countries have started vaccinating children as young as 12 years with impressive safety profiles, whilst clinical trials for younger kids are either in the pipeline or undergoing.
What’s important at the moment is to also ensure strict observation of infection prevention and control protocols in the schools, especially physical distancing, but also hand hygiene, cough etiquette, and for older children, face masks. Children need repeated education with patience regarding COVID-19 and the government and teachers must rapidly develop IEC material relevant to particular age groups in schools and communities.
Both parents and teachers must be reassured not to panic, and urgent concerted efforts to make learning environments safer and conducive are needed, but schools must not be closed.
About the Author: Dr Grant Murenhema is an independent Public Health Expert and Epidemiologist and writes in his personal capacity.