Education for Africa in the time of COVID-19

This image was taken by our Malawian Media Coordinator in a classroom before COVID-19.

For centuries to come 2020 will be remembered as the year that COVID-19 brought all global systems to a standstill. The virus with its devastating and fatal health outcomes, further exposed systemic political, governmental and economic inequalities and shortcomings. 

RWA Southern Africa reflections highlighted serious fault lines in the social, political, economic and food systems. It has also exposed inadequacies in access to health and education. Class, race, gender as well as urban/rural inequalities are further exacerbated by the health pandemic. The pandemic  shows the fragile health system that is the result of the past decades austerity and cut-backs. In Zimbabwe nurses are on strike demanding R1000 per month. 

The impact of COVID 19 on education is of particular concern, since it’s devastating consequences will be felt for generations to come, especially in poor black rural communities. As lockdown regulations are easing learners across the region are returning to schools. 

  1. COVID-19 has already resulted in lost educational time. Additional time will also be lost when schools close for decontamination after staff or learners test positive. Despite educational authorities stating that they will adapt the curriculum, no proper revised plans were circulated before the first re-opening of schools.  Across the region, confusion exists about a whether learners will write formal exams or not and whether exams will fully take lost educational time into account.
  2. During total lockdown, education departments shared some educational support through national media broadcast channels. Rural learners especially those living without proper access to electricity (on farms and informal settlements) could not access free broadcasts. At least more than 50% of rural children do not have access to smart technology and data to connect to online educational support. This place them at a disadvantage and widens the gap between poor black learners and those in more privileged household.  During lockdown, middle class learners could continue with daily online education with Zoom support from educators and hands on guidance from parents who were working from the comfort of their homes. No structural plan was put in place to ensure that children of working class/rural  backgrounds have the necessary technology to continue education online. 
  3. Across the region a dual education system, of public and private schools exists. The public sector being under resourced, understaffed, poorly equipped, overcrowded and in some cases unsafe.  This also impacts the protective mechanism that schools are able to maintain to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Hygiene supplies provided by education authorities are not enough to adequately ensure a safe environment. In South Africa hundreds of educators and learners already contracted the virus and a number of educators already passed on due to the virus.  
  4. Overcrowding in public schools will make social distancing very difficult (if not impossible), which will result in rapid spread of the virus. In Swaziland 60% of children are orphaned and dependent on elderly relatives.  School going learners will increase expose to the elderly caregivers, who are most at risk for severe health impacts. This creates a further threat of losing the only support that children have. This might result in more child headed households that will impact their ability to complete and advance their education. 
  5. Some governments allow parents to choose whether they send their children to school or not. This directive is however not clear about the child’s progression or what mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that some education continues home. Working class parents who are forced to return to work, will also not be able to provide care and support to children who are at home. So our children are made a sacrifice for COVID-19. Rural households are harshly impacted by the lockdown. Many seasonal farmworker women’s employment contracts were terminated, without being able to access social and unemployment benefits (closed government facilities). Small scale farmers had difficulty selling produce, as police and army confiscated and assaulted those who attempted to sell produce informally. Across the region few governments were able to provide adequate social relief measures to provide support to those who lost an income during lockdown. In fact countries like Zimbabwe with an already fragile economy, saw a total collapse of their economy. Their government is not even able to pay nurses who forms the frontline in the fight against the pandemic. Lack of income has resulted in major food insecurities across the region. This in turn impacts the physical and mental development and abilities of learners. 
  6. The call to return to schools comes at a time when the pandemic starts to peak in South Africa and is increasing in all regional countries. Many Northern countries with increasing infections rates decided to keep their schools closed to limit the spread of the virus. 

Given the realities on the ground, we as RWA Southern Africa, therefore make an appeal to our governments to

  1. Protect our children and only reopen the schools in January 2021, when there is a drastic decrease in infection rates.
  2. Prepare proper infra-structure and support to ensure that schools are provided with the necessary protective materials to keep all learners and teacher safe until such a time that there is no longer a threat of the virus.
  3. Put support measures in place to prepare learners from working class communities and in particular rural youth for schools reopening. 
  4. Ensure that each rural household has access to electricity, free data and devices to access educational programmes.
  5. Train and employ unemployed youth to become tutors educational support mentors to small groups of learners.  
  6. Minimise the inequality in access to education, through transforming the educational system in order for all children to have equal access to quality education.

All RWA members commit to support local teachers unions and organised learner bodies in the call for school closure and safe educational environments. 

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