Congested Schools: A Health Time Bomb Amid COVID-19

Schools have re-opened for 2021, but for those with poor infrastructure, are pupils and teachers safe from COVID-19?

With schools already open amid the COVID-19 pandemic, learners are expected to maintain social distancing to curb the spread of the coronavirus. This will be difficult to implement in most schools in Matabeleland South Province, where learners are congested.

One such school is Koodvale Primary School in Ward 22 in Gwanda, where learners from Grade 1 to 7 share three classrooms.The School Development Committee (SDC) Chairperson of Koodvale Primary, Michael Ndlovu, says they had to create a learning space for the children walking long distances to schools in neighbouring wards.

The school constructed one classroom block with three classrooms. ECD learners would have their lessons under a tree. Grade 1 to 3 used one class while Grade 4 and 5 learners also used another, and Grade 6 and 7s would also share a classroom. Now, they have also converted a hall nearby into a school.

“We have managed to split the classes so that learners alternate learning days, but we are unable to meet the recommended standard of 35 learners per class,” says Ndlovu.“Some of our classes have 50 to 60 pupils because of limited learning space,” he continues. Ndlovu says he is uncertain of the pupils’ safety at the school once there is an outbreak of the pandemic.

Talent Dube* a teacher at the school, says it will be difficult to cover much ground and recover lost time.

“It’s going to be very difficult to recover the time which learners lost out. We have split the classes into two groups which means one group learns today, and the second group comes in the following day, and they are taught the same concept. Having to teach the same thing on two consecutive days mean we are losing valuable time which we hardly have,” she says.

Ndlovu, who is also a parent, says he is uncertain of the safety of his children. He fears that schools will record an outbreak of the pandemic. He feels the government must thoroughly monitor schools and allow them to open, only if they meet the standard requirements of curbing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ward 22 councillor Mary Mpofu says learning space is a major challenge in schools in her area. She says pupils are also exposed to poor learning conditions due to resource constraints.

Examination classes opened on the 15th of March, while the rest of the classes opened on the 22nd of March 2021.

Matabeleland South Provincial Education Director Lifias Masukume is also concerned about congestion in the province. Gwanda Urban needs three more primaries and two secondary schools to decongest existing schools. The town has four primary and two secondary schools.

“Despite this challenge of congestion, lessons have to go on, and we are putting in place strategies to ensure that pupils learn while remaining safe,” says Masukume.

Molvin Dube, a member of the Zimbabwe National Educators Union (ZINEU), says most schools in the Province and the entire country have a teacher-pupil ratio of 1:55 or 60 instead of the recommended 1:30. He says the situation is even worse in some rural schools.

“For most of our schools, we usually had children sitting in rows of two from the front to the back, leaving just a little space in between. With social distancing, it means that each class has about 20 pupils. It means that about half or a third of learners in each school are the ones who can learn,” he says.

Dube says decongesting classrooms will mean that teachers will have an extra workload as they will need to split their classes. He emphasizes on need for the government to have resourced schools with temporary infrastructure which can be used to decongest classrooms.

“If some learners move outside to decongest classrooms, what will happen when it rains? Rural schools don’t have alternative learning spaces except for maybe boarding schools. If e-learning is used as an alternative learning platform, then the rural child will be left out. The education system introduced during the pandemic period shouldn’t leave out any child,” he says.

Dube says there is also a need for the government to assist schools with funds and equipment to prepare for the reopening of schools amid the pandemic.

“The income of schools mainly comes from school fees, and schools have been closed for a long time. In the short time that schools opened at the end of last year, some parents didn’t pay fees. This means that some schools are opening with nothing in their coffers, which means they won’t manage to buy essential resources for the pandemic such as sanitisers, PPEs, among other things,” he says. Dube feels the government should have consulted unions first before announcing an opening date for schools. He fears schools will become a COVID-19 hotspot again.

Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education spokesperson Taungana Ndoro says several schools in the country are indeed congested; however, they have to be innovative.

“We have been on a monitoring drive to ensure that even the congested schools adhere to the World Health Organisation (WHO) protocols and guidelines from the Ministry of Health and Child Care on the prevention and management of COVID-19. We have encouraged innovation in some of these schools to ensure that they utilise other spaces to ensure social distancing and also to have alternative timetables,” he says.

Ndoro says there will be rotational schools’ attendance in classes where learners cannot exercise social distancing. On the days’ pupils are not at school, they will be engaged through open distance learning and e-learning.

Source: The Citizen Bulletin

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