Learning during COVID-19: Desks save the day

Reimagining Education

By Gregory Gondwe
Munthali in a class session
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Malumbo Simwaka
23 November 2020

Luwambaza Primary school is tucked away in the deep forest of rubber trees in Nkhatabay district, in northern Malawi leading one to make a hasty conclusion that it is an ideal environment for learning. Before November last year, however, there was a worrying trend of absenteeism for all the classes. Teachers were left with little hope of ever achieving the goals of this education facility.

The school’s deputy headteacher Steven Munthali, who has spent six out of the seven years that he has been in the teaching profession at the school, recalls that ‘the situation was hopelessly bad”.

“Both teaching and learning were difficult. For one, the awkward posture as a result of sitting on the floor hugely affected the handwriting of all learners,” recalls Munthali.

Approximately 50 per cent of school children in Malawi do not have a desk or chair, making it extremely hard for them to concentrate on daily lessons.

All this however changed in November 2019, the moment learners started using proper desks. There was a swift turn around, he says, as learners’ handwriting started improving. They started understanding what the students were trying to convey in the practice exercises.

“Everyday attendance has also improved as the desks have helped to increase their enthusiasm,” observes Munthali.

The school got the desks as part of the project called Kids In Need of Desks Fund (K.I.N.D.), which is funded by the US Fund through UNICEF. The KIND project has provided desks for primary schools throughout Malawi since 2010.

MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell created the ground-breaking Fund with UNICEF in the same year to support education in Malawi. Since then, the programme has raised over US$ 21 million for desks and girls’ scholarships thanks to the TV station MSNBC and viewers of ‘The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell’.

Caroline is loving sitting on a desk
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Malumbo Simwaka
Caroline is loving sitting on a desk

Caroline Kamanga, a 15-year-old Standard 8 learner at the school, agrees with her teacher that when they were sitting on the floor, most of their colleagues would rarely attend school. There was just too much dust in the classrooms, which caused endless breathing issues.

Caroline’s parents immigrated to South Africa, leaving her and her siblings with her grandmother, who is a struggling cassava farmer.

“At the time that I was sitting on the floor at school, my uniform would quickly get dirty long before break time. At home, we had no soap to wash it. This is why I used to be absent from school until we were able to clean the uniform,” explains Caroline, who wants to become a secondary school teacher.

With COVID-19, the deputy headteacher adds that the desks wouldn’t have come at a better time than now. It is now easy to observe physical distancing.

“With the desks, it is easy to put learners a metre apart.  It was also difficult to detect those who were misbehaving in the class as it was too crowded.”

Before COVID-19, Munthali says each classroom had 24 desks, but now they have 14 in order to observe the physical distance.

“The desks have really made everything easy for us. Learning is far better now as we do not have distractions that we used to experience when we were sitting on the floor,” attests Caroline, who learnt about COVID-19 through her teachers and the radio.

Munthali adds that there are hand washing facilities placed in all strategic places within the school premises. They have also stopped morning assemblies.

“We underwent sensitisation meetings on precautionary measures, including the communities,” said Munthali who disclosed that they also learnt how to make masks at the local level.

The school was disinfected by the health workers before it was reopened.

Lovewell focused in a math class
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Malumbo Simwaka
Lovewell focused in a math class

Lovewell Banda, 17, a standard 8 learner at the school who wants to be a pilot remembers that they used to have a few rickety desks which were used by less than a quarter of the senior class.

“Learning used to be difficult,” he recounts. “In the course of learning, sometimes the wobbly desks would crack and break, not only disturbing ongoing lessons but also injuring some of the learners who would then miss school.”

Lovewell’s parents are subsistence farmers of rice, which means his family is constantly faced with the challenge of access to food. “When the schools were closed, I missed my studies. I am happy when I am learning, and now that schools have reopened, I am very excited. This means I will fulfil my dream of becoming a pilot,” declares Lovewell.

It is evident by these children’s enthusiasm for their studies that UNICEF and the KIND Fund’s goal to empower school children in Malawi by providing school desks to improve learning environments is bearing fruits.

With KIND Fund, UNICEF has provided 234, 703 desks benefitting approximately 938,812 learners with desks by May 2019 empowering education for the next generation.