Coping with school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic

Keeping children learning is a priority

Lulutani Tembo
Phillip reading school notes while sitting outside his home with his mother ©
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Lulutani Tembo
16 April 2020

It’s an unusual scene at Nankhali Primary School in semi-urban Lilongwe. On a bright sunny afternoon, the school grounds are quiet, classrooms are empty with no children.

Almost six million school-going children in Malawi have been home since 23 March due to the Government of Malawi’s Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) prevention measures to close schools with the aim to prevent the spread of the virus.

With the school closures, learners were told to continue with their learning from home as much as they can. But for learners like Phillip Mbwekete, learning from home has its obstacles. He lives a 10-minute walk away from the school.

“When the school closed, I was sad because we hadn’t even come close to finishing the learning we needed to do for the term. But when the headteacher explained to us the reasons why, I understood,” says the 15-year-old learner from Nankhali Primary School. “The challenge my friends and I face is when we get stuck on a particular subject we cannot ask teachers for help because they’re not on campus.”

Another challenge is that many primary schools in the country, like Nankhali have a shortage of textbooks. As a result, very few students, are able to take textbooks home, and for disadvantaged children like Phillip, his parents cannot afford to buy them. He mostly relies on the notes written in class.

Phillip is the last born in a family of six children. His parents sell vegetables for a living in the market, which is not enough to make ends meet. They struggle to put food on the table and are sometimes unable to pay  fees necessary for their children to attend school.

Despite these problems, Phillip says he is missing school a lot, is determined to make learning from home work, and he has set himself a timetable. Being a standard eight pupil, it is a critical year for him as it is his last year of primary school, and he has to sit for the national examinations. He generally excels in his studies and finished in the top 10 of his class the previous term.

“I start to do my schoolwork every day from 3 pm to 7pm after completing all the household chores. I know my parents don’t have money to buy batteries for the torch I use to study in the evenings. Sometimes, I meet my friends who live close by to have group discussions,” he explains with eagerness. “My parents encourage me to read hard. They say the school will definitely reopen and we might have to sit for the exams immediately, so I have to be prepared.”

Deputy Headteacher, Mr. Gwedera in an English lesson with standard 8 students before schools closed due to COVID-19
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Lulutani Tembo
Deputy Headteacher, Mr. Gwedera in an English lesson with standard 8 students before schools closed due to COVID-19

Advice from the school management

Before students were sent home, the school management gave students advice on how they can manage working from home. Some that Phillip already adopted.  

“We told them that when they’re home, they should carry on reading their notes, and work in pairs from home, that way they are prepared when we reopen,” says deputy headteacher Mr. Gwedera.

Mr. Gwedera highlights that many students are having challenges not being able to understand their studies on their own and are unable to receive adequate assistance from parents who don’t have much knowledge on the subjects.

Mr. Gwedera also gave advice to the students on the importance of good hygiene in preventing the transmission of COVID-19.

“I encouraged the students to listen to all the information coming from the government on handwashing with soap and not touching your face,” Mr. Gwedera illustrates. “But even with these measures, handwashing with soap is a challenge for poor families like those of learners at our school. Some don’t even have radios in their homes to listen to the COVID-19 messages being disseminated.

For Phillip, his family doesn’t have running water at home. “We access water using the borehole at school. We use this for our handwashing, but sometimes we lack soap because we do not have the money to buy it,” he says.

Phillip at home with his older brother. He motivates Phillip to work hard as he is the only one who finished secondary school in their family
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Lulutani Tembo
Phillip at home with his older brother. He motivates Phillip to work hard as he is the only one who finished secondary school in their family

UNICEF support at Nankhali Primary School

Nankhali Primary School has in the past two years received support from UNICEF, which constructed six classrooms, a library, an administration block and toilet blocks for girls, boys and teachers. Additionally, UNICEF also rebuilt the borehole that Phillip and his family use.

With children being hidden victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) to support schools with materials for distance learning, as well as production of educational radio programmes.

“UNICEF continues to support the Ministry of Education with coordination of the education cluster and has put in place a COVID-19 preparedness and response plan,” says UNICEF Chief of Education and Adolescents, Kimanzi Muthengi. “With UNICEF support, MoEST has also set up a 'continuity of learning task force' with an aim to explore innovative ways of learning for children during the school closure.”