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Government cautioned on school reopening

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DIVALA—We have been quite selective

Epidemiologist Titus Divala has advised government to tread carefully when reopening schools in the face of Covid-19.

President Lazarus Chakwera announced in his weekly address on Covid-19 that schools will be evaluated independently from this week and that those that meet certain criteria will be allowed to reopen early September.

“For instance, in the education cluster of the task force, guidelines have already been developed on what schools need to do to reopen safely. In fact, we will start assessing the readiness of each school this coming week so that the schools that meet our safety standards can reopen early September,” Chakwera said.

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Divala said Chakwera has given the national response an important challenge as the country strives towards optimal coexistence with Covid-19.

“The current closure of schools threatens the gains that our country has made for decades and is going to cause development delays in the children, untimely pregnancies, school dropouts and job losses but considering that there is a life threatening danger on the other side, the reopening needs to be informed by evidence.

“The President alluded to the numbers he has seen that show that the Malawi response is doing quite well. I don’t think those are the correct numbers and that is a correct interpretation of the numbers. Perhaps the most comforting evidence is coming from the work that has been done recently in Malawi, Mozambique and Kenya showing that although we have a lot of infections the overall number of deaths is on the lower side,” he said.

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Divala said it is unlikely government will ensure strict adherence to Covid-19 prevention measures to protect the learners from the virus.

“If the schools are to open, then the classrooms have to be disinfected as frequently as possible; the students must sit at a distance of 1.5 metres apart; every student must have a mask on and every classroom must have hand-washing facilities which may not be achieved by early September. “We have been quite selective. Our decisions have been driven by politics, lobbying. From the very beginning all crowd pulling activities were closed but as time passed, parks started opening, markets operating normally, bars are open and churches have had a whole gazette reversed,” Divala said.

On his part, Leader of Opposition Kondwani Nankhumwa said he is yet to see government’s proposal to the presidential task force on Covid-19.

“The good thing is that they have said the proposal on how to open the school will be presented to the task force. It will be premature for me to comment at this stage but when they present their plan, we will see exactly how the government intends to open the schools,” Nankhumwa said.

Meanwhile, Teachers Union of Malawi (Tum) General Secretary Charles Kumchenga said there is need to find ways of protecting teachers and the learners from the pandemic.

Tum in the past raised the issue of risk allowances which Kumchenga said government is yet to respond to the issue.

“As the schools open we need to find ways of ensuring that no teacher has over 100 learners at once. We need to find ways of making marking of class work less risky but we will not demand the risk allowances at this stage because government is yet to respond to the issue,” he said.

The guidelines for the opening of the schools have been classified in three phases such as preparing for the reopening, ongoing disease prevention through school health and nutrition and ensuring quality learning.

Among others, on preparing for reopening of the schools, the guidelines say that all schools will complete a preparedness checklist to be administered by head teachers in collaboration with School Management Committees; all school buildings should be disinfected before reopening; all school buildings to ensure that hand-washing stations are available at the entrance to classrooms, library, dining areas, hostels and administration offices and by toilets.

On ongoing disease prevention through school health and nutrition, the guidelines indicate that the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health, through the District Health Officers and District Environmental Health Officers will ensure periodic disinfections at schools, the Ministry of Health to provide guidance to all food vendors at the school facilities with regard to Covid-19 preventative protocols and that Health Surveillance Assistants will support the conducting of periodic assessments of learners at school.

On ensuring quality learning the guidelines say that all teachers will be trained and re-orientated ahead of school reopening on remedial lessons, schools will be expected to deliver remedial lessons and ‘catch-up’ classes, with extra support for marginalised students and that formative assessment conducted during the first week of school to assess learners’ retention over the break period, with continuous assessment employed during the remedial periods to track progress.

As of Sunday, Malawi had recorded 5,072 confirmed Covid-19 cases out of which 161 have died while 2,626 have recovered.

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