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Shifting to a continuity paradigm: Reopening schools amid Covid-19

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By Steve Sharra:

Lazarus Chakwera

The discourse on the status of Malawi’s schools in these times of Covid-19 was becoming too dichotomous. Either keep schools closed, as Covid-19 cases rise, or reopen schools, as children have been idle for too long and many school girls are getting pregnant. What we were not talking much about was how to provide continuity of education beyond the pandemic.

The Ministry of Education and some stakeholders made some effort to put some secondary school content online and provide data-free access to the ministry’s portal. Some primary school subjects are also being aired on MBC radio. So some learners have continued learning.

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But without a proper research study to find out what percentage of the student population are accessing these materials, and to what extent they are engaging with the content in a meaningful way, it is difficult to assess the success of the online and radio lessons. Given what we know about some of our national indicators, it is doubtful that the two noble initiatives are benefitting many students.

The 2018 Population and Housing Census revealed that only four percent of Malawian households had a desktop computer, laptop or tablet. Internet access was at 16 percent, and radio possession was at 52 percent. The only distance education mode that would have a chance of reaching more students would have been books and print materials. There were indications that these were being prepared, but there has been no update as to what progress has been made.

It is one thing to put content online and on radio and another to ensure that learners have meaningful and educative interaction with those materials. That would need the use of teachers. Teachers could have been given special training in how to support learners and help them better understand the online and radio content. In some West African countries teachers were trained in how to wear protective equipment and meet with learners and parents in homes or designated community spaces. The teachers were able to hear from learners about issues they were experiencing, provide psycho-social support, assign and assess school work and also provide information on Covid-19. These were techniques learned from past Ebola pandemics.

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Here at home, a few non-governmental organisations provided some training to teachers and parents in how to support learners, but these were isolated and uncoordinated efforts done in very few locations. The majority of our teachers have not engaged with their learners throughout the past five months. Thus the majority of our school-going children have not had any meaningful learning experiences. It will take a good research study to understand what experiences learners have been through.

Local and international media reports indicate that in some districts, child rape has gone up by 150 percent and teenage pregnancies have tripled. Before Covid-19, Malawi had the ninth highest adolescent fertility rate in the world, at 132 births per 1,000 girls aged 15-19, according to World Bank statistics. This is not a new problem; Covid-19 has only worsened it.

Meanwhile, quite a few international private schools operating in Malawi did not even close. They just shifted to online learning. They saw the Covid-19 trends in other countries and started planning ahead. They informed parents and told them what to expect and how to prepare. They trained teachers and students alike and when it became necessary, they closed campus even before the government ordered schools to close. Students continued learning online and completed their terms or semesters. There are important lessons that Malawian private and public schools can share with each other, as Minister of Education Agnes Nyalonje observed the other week.

On August 12 the Facebook page of the Ministry of Education posted an announcement stating that the National Planning Task Force for the Reopening of Schools, Colleges and Universities had prepared guidelines for reopening of schools. I have come across, via WhatsApp groups, two documents purporting to be guidelines for the reopening of primary and secondary schools and colleges and universities. Assuming these documents are authentic and official, they are quite thorough, detailed and comprehensive. They appear to be the product of expert and thoughtful input from educationists and health experts.

The primary and secondary school guidelines even include a matrix of roles and responsibilities of stakeholders, a monitoring and evaluation plan and a checklist of what schools need to have in place to reopen. In his weekly radio address of August 15, President Lazarus Chakwera stated that schools would be inspected and only those schools meeting Covid-19 prevention requirements would be allowed to re-open. We can only assume that the President was referring to the guidelines that are being shared via WhatsApp.

For the remainder of the article, I want to make some observations on the guidelines for reopening schools to provide insights into how to make them implementable. The key point I want to make is that beyond reopening schools, we need to be thinking about the long-term vision for education in the country. This will need to include providing for continuity in times of disruptions and the importance of lifelong learning as national education policy. Regarding the reopening guidelines, my focus is on the suggestions for remedial content to be the immediate focus, the absence of a time-frame, the need for infrastructure repair and maintenance, teacher continuous professional development, and inspections.

The guidelines stipulate a number of measures to prepare schools for reopening. These include allowing back school administrators and teachers first so they can begin the work towards reopening. Teachers must also be trained in Covid-19 prevention measures as well as in remedial teaching and psychosocial support for learners in preparation for re-opening. Once schools reopen, teachers should focus on remedial content for catching up, resuming from Term Two and then continuing to Term Three.

The guidelines do not provide a time-frame for the suggested preparatory activities. That is a problem that needs to be addressed. The President said the reopening of schools is scheduled for early September. That is less than two weeks from now. The only way this can happen is for the public to be made to understand that early September will be for school administrators and teachers only, so they can get started on the reopening preparations.

There is a lot that needs to be done between now and the first week of September. Some schools will require some infrastructure maintenance to be done before even school managers and teachers can return. There are Covid-19 prevention resources that will need to go through public procurement processes before they can make their way to schools. School managers, teachers and methods advisers will need to be trained, most likely using cascade models that require weeks to move from national to division to district to zone to school levels.

There are inspections that need to be carried out for each and every school before it can be certified ready to reopen. There are more than 6,300 public and private primary schools and more than 1,400 public and private secondary schools in the country. There is need for a time-frame to guide the steps needed to prepare schools for re-opening.

The idea to start with remedial content for purposes of catching up needs rethinking. It is important that the guidelines have included the provision for psychosocial support to learners and that teachers should be trained in how to provide this also. However without clarification and direction, schools may see the two ideas as a trade-off and may opt for one while ignoring the other. Examinations drive the entire conduct of our education system, and teachers will be under pressure to catch up on lost time. The psychosocial needs of learners will play second fiddle.

Given what learners will have gone through during the months schools were closed, attending to their psycho-social needs, on an ongoing basis, will be of paramount importance. In addition to the sexual violence some students will have suffered, others will have gone through psychological trauma, domestic violence, and other forms of uncertainty and insecurity. Some will have even seen family members suffer from Covid-19, and a few will have lost their family members from the pandemic.

Rushing to recover lost time and catch up with the syllabus will not work for these students. As has been noted in countries where schools have re-opened, teachers have to play many roles for which they were not trained. They will need to be child psychologists, social workers, health workers, among many other roles. Thus preparing teachers to teach in times of Covid-19 will need to be a meticulous, well thought-through process of continuous teacher professional development.

The guidelines stipulate a maximum of 40 learners per class. They also suggest maximizing school time. In spite of these provisions, there is an underlying, if not paradoxical assumption that learners will need to come to school every day and spend a lot of time in class. This will be ill-advised. The number of learners in a class will depend on the size of the classroom and how many learners it can accommodate given physical distancing of more than one metre. The guidelines say there should be no more than two learners per desk. Most desks used in Malawian classrooms, made in the pre-Covid-19 era, are meant for two learners already. The space in between is less than one metre.

Open spaces have been mentioned as a possible alternative, but this will depend on weather and temperature, number of students, minimizing distractions, and teachers’ voice projection. Schools can best decide at this level, keeping in mind safety guidelines. We abhor the thought of students learning under a tree, but Covid-19 has made this an option in many countries, as long as students are safe from a falling tree. Many schools have more than 1,000 learners, and quite a few have more than 10,000 learners. Even limiting class size to 40 will not work for these schools. In some cases the practical thing to do will be to let some classes come to school every other day, or even once a week. Learners will need to be given work to continue doing on the days they are not in school.

When a learner is showing signs that might pertain to a covid19 infection, schools are supposed to have spaces for ‘isolationing’. They should call either 54747 or 929 and wait for a covid19 team to arrive. The majority of primary and secondary schools in Malawi are in rural areas; 90 percent for primary schools, and 77 percent for secondary schools. There have been reports that the special phone numbers sometimes do not work and when they do, the covid19 team is overwhelmed with the current cases, most of which have occurred in urban areas. There will be need to increase the response teams so that teachers and students who contract Covid-19 can receive prompt attention.

The most important success factor in implementing the re-opening guidelines will be leadership at the school, zonal, district and division leadership level. Schools that will leverage good leadership at these levels will achieve the requirements and will reopen. Schools that fail at these leadership levels will lag behind, and we will be exacerbate socio-economic inequalities that are already rife in this country.

This covid19 moment gives us an opportunity to rethink our education system and imagine its future. The majority of our adolescents are not even part of the school system, as the 2018 census data shows. Only 18 percent of the secondary school age-cohort are actually in school; 82 percent are not. Our tertiary enrolment rate is 0.8 percent, the lowest in the world as Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza reminds us from time to time. It is no wonder that the majority of our adult population does not have a school qualification.

Covid-19 has come at a serendipitous time when the Ministry of Education is finishing the next National Education Sector and Investment Plan for the 2020- 2030 decade. It has also come as we are discussing the long term national development plan, Vision 2063. We can do no better than putting education, and the nation’s unschooled majority, at the centre of that vision. This entails shifting our paradigm towards seeing education as a continuous, lifelong process for everyone.

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