FOUR days from now, schools may reopen if all goes according to plan.
This is subject to the ministries of Education, Health and Local Government ensuring that schools have made adequate preparations to warrant the safe return of children in view of the escalating cases and deaths due to COVID-19.
Prompted by the surge in COVID-19 cases, Government decided to postpone for two weeks the reopening of schools to allow learning institutions to put in place health measures that will safeguard learners and teachers, too.
The question that every parent must be asking is: “Will the schools be safe enough to receive pupils next Monday as Zambia battles the second wave of COVID-19?”
Children should have returned to school on January 18, but President Edgar Lungu pushed the date forward to February 1 in a bid to allow schools to prepare for a safe reopening and for Government to observe the evolution of the coronavirus pandemic.
The presidential decree came on the backdrop of appeals by teacher unions, parents and other stakeholders for Government to delay the reopening of schools to allow for a proper analysis of the public health situation in the country.
“I have heard the concerns of parents, guardians and other stakeholders. Therefore this decision is aimed at ensuring institutions of learning prepare adequately and strictly adhere to public health regulations, guidelines and certification, and also to allow for satisfactory and adequate preparedness by all relevant authorities, including parents and guardians,” President Lungu said on January 15, 2021.
As you may already be aware, while children were preparing to return to school after a turbulent academic calendar in 2020, the second wave of COVID-19 came with devastating impact. We saw a surge in positive cases and deaths too, especially this month.
Apparently the doubting Thomases who had been thinking COVID-19 was a hoax came to accept the danger that was looming far and wide because they began to see people they knew getting infected and succumbing to the disease too.
As a result of that, there seemed to be a collective desire by teachers, parents, political leaders and other interest groups to delay the reopening of schools, mainly hoping that the COVID-19 positivity rate would decrease to warrant a safe return of children to school.
According to the President, the resumption of learning on Monday will depend on how ready each institution of learning is, and of course the COVID-19 situation in the country.
However, four days before the reopening of schools, the COVID-19 positivity rate still remains high at about 11 to 12 percent. Nonetheless, we can’t keep schools closed forever because from what health experts tell us, COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon, if at all it will.
For now we are just hoping that Africa will get a fair share of the COVID-19 vaccines that have been approved by the World Health Organisation so that our immunities could get boosted to fight the novel coronavirus.
According to the BBC, about 900 million doses of the vaccine have so far been secured by the African continent through various initiatives. These vaccines could only inoculate about 30 percent of Africa’s 1.3 billion people this year. This means that when Zambia gets her share of the vaccines, they will not be enough to go around.
So, as the continent waits for the COVID vaccines to roll in (we don’t know how long this will take), adherence to the COVID-19 golden rules will be key in keeping safe and saving lives.
We all need to learn to live safely under the shadow of the coronavirus in the so-called new normal way of life.
The wearing of face masks, frequent handwashing with soap or sanitising with an alcohol-based hand rub and decongesting classrooms are some of the measures that schools need to put in place to create a healthy environment for learners and teachers.
Government has already sourced two million washable face masks that will be distributed in schools, to supplement efforts by parents who will need to ensure that children mask up every time that they go to school.
According to Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit (DMMU) national coordinator Chanda Kabwe, each province will receive 200,000 masks.
It is a good move because there are certain children that come from underprivileged families and child-headed homes that cannot afford to buy face masks for the learners.
However, the major challenge facing schools right now is congestion, erratic water supply and poor sanitation.
To prepare for a safe return of pupils and teachers, schools need to work out measures that will allow for social distancing in classrooms.
As for public schools, where this challenge is more pronounced than in private schools, this will require splitting classrooms of learners into two or three groups to enable a safe distance among the children.
Obviously, this entails extending working hours for teachers so that they could dedicate equal learning time to the morning and afternoon streams of pupils.
Both public and private schools had tried this approach last year, and it culminated into some learners in non-examination classes only attending school three days in a week.
For this segmentation of learners to produce positive results, teachers need to be more flexible and committed to the heavier-than-usual workload. Without teachers going an extra mile to help learners, it will be difficult for schools to complete their syllabus and produce good results.
Information from the grapevine suggests that some of the learners in non-examination classes weren’t able to complete the school syllabus last year. Remember, these had an unusually long holiday, from March to September 2020.
Furthermore, to be certified fit for reopening, schools – both private and public – need to have running water at their premises.
We know for sure that without access to water, pupils cannot practise frequent handwashing while in school. The erratic supply of water in some school underpins the challenge of poor sanitation in institutions of learning. I hope that by now, health inspectors have visited all the schools to check their level of compliance to the COVID-19 health guidelines.
If at all schools are reopening on Monday, certain learning institutions should not be allowed to reopen until they address their shortcomings.
And in some cases, private schools are notorious for providing unsafe learning environments characterised by lack of running water and having tiny classrooms which are poorly ventilated.
Apart from that, all schools will need temperature scanners to help them identify learners and staff members needing medical attention.
As for boarding schools, in my view, they need to conduct COVID-19 tests on learners before admitting them to their facilities.
I feel boarders are safer than day scholars because once they go in, they are confined to one place.
However, they need to be screened prior to entering the dormitories because one infected person could transmit the disease to so many people.
Well, all in all, looking at the public health situation in the country, I am not sure if schools are ready for reopening on Monday.
Obviously the Government, in collaboration with health experts, has made an informed decision which will be communicated to the nation.
Nevertheless, I hope that parents and guardians have taken advantage of this window period to pay school fees for their children. And whether or not schools will reopen on Monday, parents should go ahead and settle school fees this month-end. By so doing, you are not only helping schools to meet administrative costs during this difficult period, but also liberating yourself from the temptation of diverting school fees to things you didn’t budget for.
It is just wise for parents to prepare for the reopening of schools to avoid inconveniencing the children should schools resume at an unexpected time.
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