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School suspension ignites debate

Benedicto Kondowe

The decision by the Presidential Taskforce on Coronavirus and Cholera to suspend the opening of primary and secondary schools in Blantyre and Lilongwe cities as one way of arresting cholera has sparked a heated debate.

The government, through the Presidential Taskforce on Covid and Cholera, Monday suspended the opening of schools in the two cities.

Schools in other areas are expected to open today, with plans to open schools in the two cities in not less than two weeks.

However, Private Schools Association of Malawi (Prisam) has disagreed with the taskforce’s decision.

At a press briefing in Blantyre Monday, Prisam members asked the government to review its decision to suspend school opening in Blantyre and Lilongwe.

Prisam Trustee Hastings Moloko pointed at a number of gaps in the taskforce’s decision.

“The playfield is not levelled because it is only schools in Blantyre and Lilongwe that have been affected.

“Now, all [Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education, Junior Certificate of Education and Malawi School Certificate of Education examinations] candidates will sit the same national examinations and the issue of closure will not be considered. We also wonder why only primary and secondary schools have been closed when universities and colleges remain open. Is it that cholera only affects primary and secondary schools?” Moloko queried.

He further said that there is no scientific evidence that students are safer in homes than schools.

Prisam President Amon Mtafya asked the government to allow students in examinations classes to resume studies.

“We welcome the decision because this is a public health concern but our plea to the government is to allow students in examinations classes to resume classes. We hope that, with only these students in school, we will control congestion. With the examination timetable already out, delaying these students will inconvenience them,” Mtafya said.

Civil Society Education Coalition (Csec) Executive Director Benedicto Kondowe Monday suggested that all schools should not open for one or two weeks while the Malawi Health Equity Network (Mhen) argued that no school should have a delayed opening.

Kondowe said to avoid disturbing the harmonised school calendar, opening of all schools could be suspended for a week or two to give school authorities ample time to prepare for any cholera eventuality.

“Cholera has affected all districts of the country, just that some of them, notably Blantyre and Lilongwe, have recorded a big number of cases.

“We were supposed to have a universal postponement and universal reopening, which would have meant retaining the harmonised academic calendar which the Ministry of Education tirelessly worked on,” Kondowe said.

He also blamed members of the taskforce for announcing news about the suspension just a day before the opening of schools.

“This has inconvenienced guardians and students,” he said.

Some parents and guardians have also blamed the taskforce for announcing news of the postponement just a day before schools open.

One of the Blantyre-based teachers bemoaned that the taskforce’s decision would have repercussions on staff welfare.

“Some of us work as private secondary school teachers, which means we get paid December salaries when schools open in January. Now, following the decision of the taskforce to delay the opening of schools in Blantyre and Lilongwe cities, we have nowhere to source money.

“In fact, when we heard about the taskforce’s decision, some of us obtained loans from loan sharks. When we pay back the money, we will have nothing remaining, even if we receive salaries for December 2022 and January 2023 when the schools finally open,” the teacher, a father of two, said.

And, in a statement released Monday, Mhen Board Chairperson Carolyn Kassam and Executive Director George Jobe says schools could be opened while following standard operating procedures (SOP) that the ministry introduced.

“In view of the SOPs… the delayed opening of schools in the cities of Blantyre and Lilongwe should be revisited.

“The schools should be made to follow and implement the SOP with close monitoring… The health education sessions that will be made at schools’ assemblies can be a good source of information and use the children as one of the effective vehicles for reaching households with information on cholera,” the statement reads.

Quality education advocate Steve Sharra faulted the government for delays to announce that classes will be suspended in some cities.

“By the time the announcement was being made, some students had already left for schools while others had already arrived. It is unfortunate that some parents will have to spend more for the students to return home,” Sharra said.

Sharra said the country should learn from the Covid experience when schools were also closed for some months at the peak of the pandemic.

“The bigger lesson we should have learnt from the Covid experience was that our decisions have to be backed up by data. But, above all, we should avoid extended school closures,” Sharra said.

The Presidential Taskforce on Covid and Cholera has also advised city and district councils in Blantyre and Lilongwe to scale up water supply, improve sanitation and administer vaccines even to the school-age population.

“For all other learners in all health districts, the respective authorities should enhance compliance with recommended cholera control measures, including cholera vaccination for those that have not yet been vaccinated,” the statement which the taskforce has released indicates.

The statement is signed by taskforce co-chairpersons Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda and Wilfred Nkhoma.

This far, over 595 people have died of cholera since March last year. Blantyre recorded 105 deaths, with Lilongwe registering 97 fatalities.

On Sunday this week, the Ministry of Education and Teachers Union of Malawi said they were ready to roll out, but the latter feared for learners’ lives if school management members did not improve on sanitation.

Initially, Secretary for Education Chikondano Mussa told The Daily Times that schools were going to open, but with a strict observation of SOPs that the ministry provided last year.

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