Reviving hopes dashed by COVID-19 school closures

COVID-19 and education

By Gregory Gondwe
Matilda and her two twin daughters – Yankho and Pemphero. Behind them on the chair is some of their learning materials
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Gregory Gondwe
10 September 2020

Tucked away on the shores of Lake Malawi, 75 kilometres north-east of Mangochi District Town at Katukumala Village in Cape Maclear is home to 15-year-old twin sisters, Pemphero and Yankho Benard.

The lake is only 200 metres away from the girls’ house, but it still did little to assuage the extent of boredom that engulfed their lives when the government announced the closure of all educational facilities in March in a bid to curb the spread of the Coronavirus.

In her mind, Pemphero imagined that the closure would last at most a week and that they would soon return to the classroom. But five months down the road, schools are yet to open although the government has announced the partial resumption of classes sitting for national examinations.

“I am glad they have announced that school opens on September 7; otherwise we were on the verge of losing our minds,” says Pemphero, a Standard Four student at Cape Maclear Primary School, a class behind her twin sister.

Yankho agrees: “A couple of weeks after we came home, we developed a solid studying routine. But when our teachers could not state with certainty as to when we were to return to school, we lost hope as we didn’t even understand what we were studying for.”

Their 39-year-old mother Matilda Muhammad says that at first, all her eight children were studying through radio programmes but they stopped when the radio was damaged by a power surge. She has not repaired it.  

She says the radio education programmes were effective as they kept her children in touch with their studies.

“Since my children are in different classes, the radio presented lessons for a specific class at a different time and therefore, they used to give each other turns,” she says, adding that where the younger children did not understand, the older ones would step in to assist.

“From the radio, I used to like learning English lessons, some of which I still remember and I will take with me back to school once classes resume,” says Pemphero.

Yankho says she always looked forward to listening to radio lessons because of its clarity and simplicity.

Matilda, heard about COVID-19 through the radio and community meetings called for by the traditional leaders and she understood why her children could not go back to school.

When schools closed, she used to encourage her children to read until they gradually lost interest as it became difficult for her two secondary school-going sons, and the rest of her children who are in primary school to maintain the momentum.

“It was like there was no ultimate prize, but I encouraged them knowing that once the Coronavirus is gone, they should not be left far behind when schooling commences,” she says.

But when the radio lessons started, it helped fill a void as there was at least some channel that her children used to keep abreast with the lessons that they missed.

Her husband is a fisherman who plies his trade across the lake between Malawi and Mozambique, and he was away on yet another fishing outing on the Mozambican side with their two older sons, both of who are in secondary school.

Matilda also happens to be in a mother group that supports learners at the school and she has been busy with her colleagues sewing face masks which they will distribute to learners when school opens. But she fears that it will not be possible to make the face masks for the entire school population.

Matilda suggests: “Before schools restart, the administration should ensure that all Covid-19 preventive measures are in place; that water pails and hand washing soap are placed at every corner of the school, provision of face masks to learners and observation of social distancing at every gathering within the school.”

Responding to Matilda’s concerns, Cape Maclear Primary School headteacher, Redson Bwanali, notes that for the preventive measures to work, the school will have to do double shifts. The school has over 2,500 learners against 31 teachers.

He says he has received training on Covid-19 as well as the school guidelines for school reopening which they will put to good use.

“We have eight classes that conduct their lessons under trees, which is an indication that we are already overwhelmed. Physical distancing can, therefore, only be possible with double shifts as this will ensure learners’ safety, protection and well-being once the schools are reopened,” he explains.

He proposes this is the right time for the government to buttress the education sector by hiring teachers that graduated under the Initial Primary Teacher Education (IPTE) 13 and 14 programme and are now waiting to be deployed.

Bwanali contends that there are several interventions in place as schools gear up for reopening.

A UNICEF intervention, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, which was awarded a US$ 10 million grant by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), will see the school train stakeholders as part of the response to the pandemic.

“The school has received the funds through the zonal account, and some materials were purchased for the two training,” he explains.

This will ensure improved capacity to effectively coordinate and monitor the implementation of response and recovery activities.

The first meeting will pool together over 50 participants that will include members of the Parents Teachers Associations (PTAs), school committees and mother groups while the second will consist of 10 community leaders.

“We are ready for the reopening of school, and a consignment of pails is on its way,” he says. “We have already stocked soap, although initially we had hoped to procure chlorine which is not hazardous to children, it has run out across many shops.”

Bwanali says it is a blessing in disguise that the opening of the schools is within the GPE COVID-19 accelerated funding window which came into force on May 15, 2020, and will end on November 30, 2021.

“With such assistance, classes will continue to run smoothly, and our education system will surely recover from school closures necessitated to help stop the spreading of the virus,” he says.

Bwanali says leaners like Pemphero and Yankho Benard will now enjoy the lake scenery confident of achieving their shared dream of becoming teachers. And once schools open, the teachers will help learners through assessments, accelerated learning and second chance opportunities.