Schools closed a week earlier than scheduled and 18 days of the second term have elapsed with kids still at home.

Broadly, the academic calendar for institutions of higher learning has been similarly affected.

The Government ordered the early closure of educational institutions and has ordered they remain closed as part of a range of measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

By their nature, schools and institutions of higher learning bring thousands of people together. Given the fastness with which the virus can spread, schools and colleges could have been time bombs.

It is early days yet, but the Covid-19 outbreak in the country hasn’t been as big as we all feared. By late yesterday, 48 Covid-19 cases had been recorded countrywide since the onset of the outbreak on March 20.

Credit for this must go to the Government which enforced the national lockdown on March 30. Furthermore, the Government has intensified quarantining, testing, isolation, contact tracing and treatment of cases.

A national public awareness campaign is also ongoing. The World Health Organisation has classified Covid-19 transmission in the country as “sporadic”, which is good. Hopefully, cases will remain at that manageable level as mechanisms to respond to any eventuality are progressively improved.

In recognition of the gains scored, the Government has, over the past four weeks been relaxing the lockdown restrictions. In that spirit, there is a feeling that, although the lockdown remains indefinitely on level two, there must be movement towards easing children back into schools and students back into colleges.

As President Mnangagwa said at the weekend while updating the nation on the national response to Covid-19, schools would be reopened in a phased manner, giving priority to exam-writing classes, but dates would be announced in due course. He stressed that when schools re-open, strict measures would be effected, key among them maintaining social distancing, regular disinfection of school premises, hand washing and wearing of face masks.

We agree that the time for schools and colleges to begin moving towards re-opening is now and there is no alternative to a phased, cautious approach that the President ordered at the weekend.

When the pandemic started in December last year, it was believed that young people were safe from Covid-19. We believed that only the elderly and those with underlying health conditions were at risk. It was believed that minors were actually safe from infection.

However, minors and young adults are being infected by the coronavirus, a number of them in the US and Europe dying. It is also turning out that some children and young adults can be infected while not showing any symptoms of the disease. Be that as it may, they are as infectious as adults who present symptoms.

Therefore, there is need for much care, consultation and preparation ahead of the re-opening of schools.

Addressing the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education Wednesday, Primary and Secondary Education Permanent Secretary Mrs Tumisang Thabela said her ministry had already drawn up a plan that is now being considered by Cabinet and should be announced soon.

“Phase one, we are looking at examination classes — these are O-Level, A-Level and Grade Seven classes,” she said.

“We need a minimum of four weeks to train teachers, to train the whole system, to procure protective clothing and all other things we may need. The gradual rollout will see an eased increase in school numbers. Phase two, which will follow after three weeks will be for classes writing next year. All classes will be split into two to allow social distancing, so we do not know how many teachers we will have left. This is why we will need another three weeks before getting to the next level. Phase three is when the rest of high school learners will go to school and in primary, Grades Three, Four and Five will return to schools. We are hoping our winter would have shown us clearly how the school is reacting to the cold weather. As we get to phase four, classrooms will be used up due to social distancing. In this phase, Grade One and Two learners will return to class. We will now be using tents and mobile classrooms to accommodate learners, this takes a lot of logistics. This is why their return will have to be two weeks after phase three.”

Training of teachers is critical, so is equipping of them with the right protective equipment. We expect the former to begin now as resources are being mobilised for the procurement of the latter so that by June 29 when the first June public examinations are taken, the educators would be ready with the requisite skills and equipment to effectively teach in an environment that is safe. Other classes can then follow.

Schools must also invest in hand-washing systems — clean running water, alcohol-based sanitiser and soap. Thermometers to measure body temperature of kids and staff would need to be secured too. Parents and guardians have a role to play too in procuring suitable face masks for use by their children and wards.

Mrs Thabela spoke for her ministry, but colleges and universities and their ministry can adopt and adapt the lower education template for their use.