Learners excited about schools reopening in Eswatini
Over 350 000 learners were affected by the indefinite closure of schools in March 2020 amid escalating cases of COVID-19 around the world.
Learners across the Kingdom of Eswatini are excited about schools reopening after over a year since they were forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to stay at home and miss their 2020 academic year. Over 350 000 learners were affected by the indefinite closure of schools in March 2020 amid escalating cases of COVID-19 around the world. UNICEF in collaboration with partners such as the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) has been supporting the government to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on learners through numerous interventions including the introduction of radio and TV lessons.
Schools in Eswatini opened for the 2021 academic year on the 23rd March 2021. UNICEF visited the schools during the first week of opening to monitor how they were implementing innovative ways of getting children back to school safely. Some of the precautionary measures that schools have implemented include setting up handwashing stations at strategic points like entrances and next to the kitchens.
Five-year-old Owethu Vilakati who is in 1st Grade at MDS Primary Schools was found washing hands in one of the handwashing stations in the school yard. Like many other learners in 1st Grade around the country, Owethu has had to contend with the plight of missing most of her very first days of school due to the pandemic. She might have to attend school only once a week. This is the reality for most learners in schools around the country.
Mrs. Dlamini, the Principal at Ezulwini Valley Primary School highlighted numerous challenges that the school is facing regarding the opening of schools under the new conditions. The small primary school facing the scenic Mdzimba Mountain has a total of 998 students enrolled for 2021. The school has introduced a shift system to try and meet the academic needs of all learners while also adhering to COVID-19 precautionary measures. According to Mrs. Dlamini, Grades 6 and 7 now occupy 6 classes instead of 3 since they have had to split the classes in half.
However, this will result in most learners attending school only once a week. During the visit to Ezulwini Valley Primary School most learners were found outside the school gate. Mrs. Dlamini explained that the school had communicated the new learning arrangements to the learners, but after almost a year of missing school, accepting that they must continue missing more of their learning days seems to be a bitter pill to swallow.
Asked if the school had considered the prospect of online learning, Mrs. Dlamini was skeptical about its feasibility due to the disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds of most of her learners. “Most of our leaners cannot afford the smartphones and data to enable them to learn online”, added Mrs. Dlamini.
As the monitoring of schools reopening continued, it became evident that the same issues are affecting countless other schools around the country. Ka-Schiele High School Deputy Principal Mrs. Aphane stated that they have had to introduce the shift system and reduce the number of learners to 20 per class. She also highlighted that most leaners in the school cannot afford online learning tools and this is making it impossible for the school to introduce this intervention. She further stated that with adequate support, the school can explore other innovative ways of online learning like Google Classroom or Moodle.
Masundvwini High School is one of the schools that has attempted using online platforms to enable learners to continue learning on the days when they are not at school. According to Mr. Dlamini, the school’s Principal, they have around 650 students enrolled for 2021. Mr. Dlamini stated that completing classes, Form 3 & 5 will come to school three times a week to try and accommodate all the students. He further stated that the school introduced WhatsApp groups for learners to continue learning when they are at home, but this is proving to be a challenge since most students exit the groups without any apparent reason. However, for some learners in the school, learning online remains a luxury.
Anele Madonsela, a 14-year old Form 1 leaner in the school lost her mother to an unknown illness in March 2021. Anele, an aspiring medical doctor says she used to stay with her mother and elder sister in Matsapha. Her mother was a hawker who sold wares on the streets of Matsapha to earn a living.
“One day in early March, I found her lying prostrate on the floor. When I turned her around, she was unconscious with bleeding nostrils”, narrated Anele.
She added that when she discovered that her mother was unconscious, she alerted her sister and they called a pastor to come and pray for her. After being prayed for, Anele stated that her mother showed signs of getting better and she went to sleep. But she never woke up.
“We thought she was asleep, but that was not the case. She was dead,” adds Anele narrating the sad ordeal.
She further stated that she missed being at school, but she will only have classes two days a week. Anele is one of the countless learners whose academic future remains uncertain as UNICEF continues to work and collaborate with partners support the government to keep schools open in Eswatini.