As part of the drive to transform our world, leaders came up with goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals to ensure inclusive equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. This goal, coming on the heels of a widely shared acknowledgement that the MDGs were successful but in reality did not eradicate inequalities to me is very important as it has implications for the success of especially goal number one on ending poverty.

The goal on education is so critical that COVID-19 or COVID-19 education just has to continue. This would explain why parents and policymakers are worried about the impact of the COVID-19-related lockdown on learners’ education.

For most families, educating children remains the ticket out of poverty, hunger and poor health. Education, therefore, has to continue in one form or another. While the less-disadvantaged parents and caregivers are arranging online learning for their children, learners who depend on government-subsidised classroom-based education wait at home and hope for a miracle. Government has, therefore, announced a phased process of schools re-opening.

At the moment everyone is worried, parents worry about delayed learning. Teachers must be worried about how they are going to rearrange their classrooms to accommodate prevention of COVID-19 infection among learners.

Policymakers on their part must be worried about how the lockdown will impact on leaners education and in the long run on Zimbabwe’s ability to deliver on sustainable goal 4 to its children. Leaners are stressed and worried about how school re-opening will look like. My seven-year-old daughter the other day said to me “mama, I am afraid of going back to school because I heard that if you are touched by someone who has corona you will be infected”. That is part of the worry at that level.

This broke my heart and even as I tried to give her age appropriate information and assure her that she will be safe, I realised that it’s going to be a long road for all involved. I resented this virus for making our children carry such a huge psychological burden. It hit me that I actually was not very sure of what mechanisms for safety will be available when/if schools open! Noting my worry, my husband suggested I write something about the need to continue education within the war against COVID-19. So here we are.

The bottom line is that at some point, schools will have to open. We, however, have to plan for that eventuality now. We should not wait for an announcement that schools will open on a given date to start thinking about what form that opening will take. COVID-19 appears to be with us for a long time and with this reality in mind, we have to mainstream its prevention into the school system. The first thing is to identify points of vulnerability, both physical and psychosocial and take mitigatory measures.

Maintaining the learning spirit

The first thing to do if it’s not already happening is to strengthen the partnership between teachers and parents in maintaining the learning spirit as we try to regroup and open our schools. In researching for this article I came across a 2017 article by Quinn and Polikoff that said on average learners’ achievement scores declined over normal school holidays by one month’s worth of school learning. The world over lockdowns have kept children away from school for far much longer than the normal termly breaks and it would make sense to extrapolate that without any intervention, the loss would be more. I would, therefore, urge parents and caregivers to facilitate some kind of continued learning at home. For those who have televisions and access to internet data, there are basic lessons on television. Parents can arrange to support the teachers with data to send learning exercises over the phone.

These exercises can then be marked by the parents with guidance from the teacher. Kraft and Monti-Nussbaum in their randomised trial report titled Can schools empower parents to prevent summer learning loss? found that something as simple as sending text messages over school holidays to parents of primary school learners at risk of holiday loss was effective at improving the reading scores of third and fourth grade learners. The text messages could include suggested play activities to do with the learners that would help them remember concepts and actual reading and writing exercises. Most of us have phones, let’s use them to keep learning alive for our children. We also need to think of alternative interim measures such as radio lessons.

Radio lessons

When I was in primary school, every school had radios that were used for lessons. I remember we would sit around the radio set with our teacher and listen to the voice from the radio and following instructions given by the radio teacher we would write exercises that would be marked by the class teacher. Policymakers and their NGO partners have to seriously think about reviving this concept in one form or another. I am aware something similar is already happening on TV, but a radio is more affordable for both government and parents. We could take advantage of the provincial radio stations to ensure learning continuity. This would, however, not replace classroom learning and we would still have to plan for that. There are two major points of vulnerability for the learners as discussed below.

Travel to and from school

Most urban learners travel to school on public transport. Those in rural areas walk to school. With what is known so far about COVID-19, public transport would be a source of infection particularly for young leaners as it is used by many commuters. We cannot avoid this mode of travel for learners. I would urge government to dedicate a given number of school buses for children. These would have to be sterilised more than once in a day and should be used by learners and their teachers only. I am aware learners stay in diverse locations, but still think it should be possible to arrange common transport in collaboration with schools.

Within the school

There is a video of a post lockdown Chinese school circulating on social media. The video shows a state of the art prevention equipment designed to check learners and disinfect them at many different points within the school. It includes disinfection of shoe soles, washing of hands, personal cubicles in class etc. As I watched it I wondered if we could ever be able to sustainably do the same for our children. I am realistic enough to know we don’t have the resources to provide the same equipment and to also know that even in China not all schools would be that privileged. I, however, believe in the child’s right to health and education enough to know we can try.

We will beat this!

 Sibusisiwe Marunda is the Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative Zimbabwe country director. She writes in her personal capacity and is contactable on busimarunda@gmail.com.

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