Patricia Siyati, nine, wakes up every weekday to do household chores before trekking through a clayey rugged path to Makande Primary School in Chikwawa.
Clutching notebooks in her armpit, she says bye to her parents, but with full of regrets when she harks back to the school time she lost in 2020 and, later, this year.
The Covid pandemic has changed lifestyles in many ways.
Activities such as physical teaching and learning were significantly disturbed to curtail the spread of the global scourge that has, so far, killed over 2,300 people in the country and over 5.2 million globally.
The shutting down of schools resulted in lessons being offered online so that learners could access them from their homes.
But the arrangement is just another area where inequalities in the education sector bare their fangs.
Patricia, a Standard Four learner, found learning from home full of obstacles, and it was a familiar scenario among many others in rural areas.
Even after the schools reopened following the drop in Covid cases, Patricia still has to do household chores after being ‘inducted’ into that work.
“I want to become a teacher but my dream is under threat. I work hard in class but when I get home, I mostly don’t have time to go through my books,” the learner says.
She is the oldest of the three daughters in the family.
Patricia admits that the closure of the schools was a holiday to her and many other learners in her community.
“We were told there was an outbreak that spreads faster in places where many people gather.
After some time, we were told to go back to school,” she recalls.
Malawi reopened schools on February 22 this year, five weeks after President Lazarus Chakwera had suspended classes following a spike in Covid cases.
It was the second time for the learning institutions to be shut down after a similar experience last year.
After the second closure, co-Chairperson of the Presidential Task- Force on Covid Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda said the drop in the number of new cases necessitated the reopening of the schools.
“Actually, what we wanted is that once we reopen the schools, our children should be safe because we know that when we were closing the schools, some teachers were Covid positive and were on quarantine,” Chiponda said.
Other learners such as Beston Simon, 14, were lucky that they returned home safe after the closure of the schools and came back to classes safe too.
They only rue the time they spent doing other things instead of learning, a thing some of their counterparts, especially those in urban areas, easily undertook as they had easy access to materials online.
“After schools got closed, I started doing piecework in other people’s gardens as well as herding their cattle. I was always home doing nothing; that is why I decided to do the piecework to earn some money,” Beston states.
The allure of money got stuck with him.
Even after schools had reopened, he could not abandon the piecework and, instead, juggled between learning and working in other people’s fields.
“The money was helping me to at least buy some of the things that I needed. I took advantage of the holiday because I was always home doing nothing,” Beston says.
Senior Chief Ngabu of Chikwawa laments that the pandemic has thwarted efforts by traditional leaders and other community members to keep children in school.
“There are so many problems that came with that persistent closure of schools. We all know that education forms a huge part of a child’s development. What they lost during the time schools were closed will never be regained,” the traditional leader says.
He says parents and schools in rural areas were not prepared for the closure and that when learners were out of school, anything school-related was halted.
“The truth is we do not have well-stocked libraries for our learners; they rely on teachers. The biggest problem that came with the closure of schools was unwanted pregnancies which led to rising child marriage cases,” he says.
Education expert Steve Sharra says there needs to be a proper study to determine the exact ways in which Covid has increased inequalities between learners in rural areas and those in urban areas.
“However, we have some preliminary observations that give an idea of how the inequalities worsened. At the primary school level, 89 percent of schools are in rural areas; only 11 percent are in urban areas.
“The quality of education offered differs significantly, with schools in urban areas benefitting more from better infrastructure, amenities such as electricity and running water and more manageable class sizes,” Sharra says.
He adds that the country will get a better picture of how Covid has affected enrollment when the Ministry of Education releases the 2021 annual education statistics.
“However, what we know at this point already paints a sad picture. The number of learners who sat the Standard Eight and the Form Four national examinations in 2021 went down remarkably.
“It dropped by seven percent for PSLCE [Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education] examinations and 16 percent for MSCE [Malawi School Certificate of Education] examinations.
These are significant numbers and the hypothesis so far is that Covid was a big factor. The fear is that learners in rural schools dropped out at a greater rate than those in urban areas,” Sharra says.
In the meantime, learners such as Patrician and Beston wish the emergence of a new coronavirus variant, named Omicron and described by the World Health Organisation as a “virus of concern”, will not disturb their learning which could be getting back on track.