School reopening in Malawi

Q&A

UNICEF Malawi
Abgril Msichiri in class at Luwambadzi Primary School in Nkhatabay
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Malumbo Simwaka
20 October 2020

 As ­­more children return to school on 12 October after a long break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF Malawi Representative Rudolf Schwenk shares his perspective on why it is important to get children safely back in school.

  1. Is it safe for children to go back to school when we still have COVID-19 among us?

Schools do much more than teach children how to read, write and count. They also provide nutrition, health and hygiene services, provide mental health and psychosocial support, and dramatically reduce the risk of violence, early pregnancy and more.

And it is often the most marginalized children who are the hardest hit by school closures. We know from previous crises that the longer vulnerable children are out of school, the less likely they are to return.

Unless we prioritize the reopening of schools – when it is safe to do so – we will likely see a devastating reversal in the education gains we have made in recent years. Rising inequality, poor health outcomes, violence, child labour and child marriage are just some of the long-term threats for children who miss out on school.

While existing evidence suggests that children under the age of 18 years represent about 8 per cent of reported cases[1], with relatively few deaths compared to other age-groups, children are still at risk of getting sick and they can infect others. Therefore, we must ensure a safe reopening of schools. The best interest of every child should be paramount.

UNICEF supported the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health to develop school reopening guidelines to ensure disease prevention in school and on the way to school. There are several actions that the schools in partnership with communities, and Parents Teachers Associations (PTA) will have to take to ensure safe reopening of schools such as – an assessment of the school infrastructure and environment, orientation and training of both teaching and non-teaching staff. Schools must enforce physical distancing in class, manage break times, provide hand washing facilities and encourage good hygiene practices to keep children safe in school, and on the way to and from school.

  1. What should schools look like now? What measures should be in place to guarantee safety of children and teachers?

Hygiene and disinfection measures must be in place so that schools operate safely, with regular handwashing, daily disinfection and cleaning of school surfaces, basic water, sanitation and waste management facilities, and environmental cleaning and decontamination.

The Ministry of Education has prescribed that a classroom should not have more than 40 learners. Learners siting on desks or on the floor will have to maintain at least a one-meter distance. Children and teachers will have to wear a mask.  

We should see "talking schools" –schools with posters and other Information, Education and Communication materials constantly reminding learners and teachers about COVID-19 preventative measures, essential services to prevent gender based violence and sexual exploitation and abuse referral systems (including toll free numbers),  provision of psychological support services, nutrition and menstrual hygiene management among other services

The Ministry of Education, schools and teachers will have to rethink education and reflect on classroom practices that are not in line with COVID 19 preventative measures such as no contact, rethink how to do class assessments that require marking of exercise books.

PTAs should support in providing water, soap and masks for learners; ensuring safety of learners on their way to and from school.

  1. How is UNICEF supporting the Government to ensure children and teachers return to a safe environment?

UNICEF supported the Ministry of Education in developing the school reopening guidelines.  As part of the of the preparations for schools, with funding from the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), UNICEF supported Ministry of Education in the assessment of schools and providing 7,000 buckets and soap to primary and secondary schools across the country.

UNICEF is also supporting the Government to implement a safe schools' programme - an integrated child protection programme that ensures that children are safe at home, on the way to school and at school. UNICEF has contributed to the development of a protection checklist for reopening of schools to ensure that there is a framework for ensuring that protection issues are incorporated in school reopening. The checklist will also ensure that resources are effectively mobilized and coordinated to reach more learners with protection services as they need them.

  1. What support will teachers need to ensure a smooth transition after such a long break?
  • Teachers will need training on new practical class practices that are in line with COVID-19 measures.
  • Teachers will be trained in delivery of remedial lessons to the learners. 
  • Teachers will need support on how they can best provide education programmes within the new guidelines.
  • Teachers need to be oriented to providing psychosocial support to learners and support children on protection issues.

               We are very pleased to see that the Ministry has already conducted some of these trainings.

  1. Media reports indicate that many girls got pregnant or got married during the extended holiday. Is UNICEF planning any interventions to bring these girls back to school?

UNICEF is closely working with the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders on implementation of the readmission Policy. Girls that got married or pregnant have a chance to come back to school and will be supported to ensure their continued learning. This is already going on in some selected districts where girls returning to school are being supported with scholarships and other interventions to improve their academic performance. Through the European Union supported Spotlight Initiative in six districts (Dowa, Nsanje, Machinga, Ntchisi, Nkhatabay, Mzimba), UNICEF and other partners will continue supporting vulnerable girls to continue with their education through provision of scholarship and covering other school related costs.

  1. Should we expect to see lasting effects on the education sector? Can the impact of the pandemic on education be reversed?

Malawi's education sector faces several challenges, even before the pandemic hit. For instance, only 6 per cent of primary school learners meet minimum proficiency in English while 52 per cent meet the minimum proficiency in Mathematics, according to a 2015 Monitoring Learning Assessment. At secondary level, just half of those who wrote the 2019 Malawi School Certificate of Education examination passed.

During this five-month school closure, despite significant efforts, many children were unable to participate in the radio and online lessons that the Ministry of Education had developed, with support from UNICEF and other partners. This is due to the lack of radios in their homes and electronic devices for online learning. This is likely to worsen the learning outcomes for most children.

The Ministry of Education has included within their recovery plans, immediate assessments of learners as schools reopen, followed by tailor made remediation. This will attempt to recover the learning that may have been lost by the long absence from school.

In the face of this pandemic, the Government will have to make hard decisions and adjust spending during the crisis. Faced with urgent short-term needs, it will be tempting to let education spending—a critical long-term investment in human capital—stagnate. If the budget is not secured, the capacity for the education sector to perform at its maximum efficiency will decline.

With this in mind, yes, it will take time to recover from the impact of COVID-19. But if we secure the funding, implement remediation well and enforce the readmission policy, the impact of COVID can and will be reversed.

  1. How did UNICEF support the Government of Malawi to keep children learning while schools were closed?

With funding from GPE, UNICEF Malawi supported the Ministry of Education to develop materials for continuity of learning- 400 radio programmes aired for Standard 1 to 8 in English, Chichewa, Science. We also supported the production of self-study materials for secondary school students, delivered online under the Ministry's partnership with Airtel and TNM.

Through the Malawi College of Distance Learning, UNICEF supported the development of offline self-learning modules in six core secondary school subjects, targeting children from vulnerable households.

UNICEF also helped the government to secure US$10 million funding from the Global Partnership for Education to support the COVID-19 response in the education sector.

  1. What lessons can we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it has on education? What are the implications for future education programming?

It may not be business-as-usual again for some time. We need safer and better schools. We need innovative approaches to learning. We need better access to technology for every boy and girl child to bridge the digital divide that exists, among other things, due to gender, economic status. Malawi needs a blended type of learning to accommodate various groups of learner needs.

This global disruption can be an opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime transformation in our schools, so that every child learns the skills they need to succeed in life, school and work. In other words, the reopening of schools also presents an opportunity to ‘build back better’ – by investing in equitable, quality education and skills development to ensure a whole generation of children and young people are not left behind.


[1] WHO evidence https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/considerations-for-school-related-public-health-measures-in-the-context-of-covid-19%20