‘Put children’s interests first before opening schools’

THE Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) has warned that opening schools without adequately setting up safety measures to mitigate the spread of the deadly coronavirus (Covid-19) could be disastrous, indicating that schools are still gravely ill-equipped to reopen.
This comes as the government has indicated that schools will open on July 28, 2020, with teachers’ unions including the Zimbabwe Teachers Association (Zimta), warning the government against rushing to reopen schools before necessary measures are put in place to mitigate the spread of the deadly Covid-19.
In its assessment of schools’ preparedness to reopen, which sampled government, mission, council-owned and private schools in Harare, Bulawayo, Norton, Chegutu, Kadoma, Mhondoro, Marondera, Rusape, Nyazura, Nyanga, Chinhoyi, Karoi, Bindura, Masvingo, Murewa, Mutoko, Chiweshe, Goromonzi among others, ZHRC indicated that there were gaps in terms of access to information, infrastructure and hygiene to support the reopening of schools.
“ZHRC notes with concern the limitations in infrastructure at the majority of schools visited by the Commission around the country.
“In regards to some government, mission and council-owned boarding schools, it emerged that the hostels were already crowded due to big enrolments, and for children to practise social distancing, there is need to decongest hostels and create extra accommodation. This decongestion of hostels is a mammoth task due to limited financial resources.
“ZHRC also noted the ablution facilities for staff and students at schools are limited such that there is risk of infection with the virus since there are too many people touching the same surfaces in these facilities,” ZHRC.
In neighbouring South Africa, where schools were opened to allow examination classes to resume learning, over 30 schools have closed so far due to both students and teachers testing positive for Covid-19.
The Commission added that apart from lack of infrastructure, lack of hygienic facilities in schools also poses a risk in both teachers and students contracting Covid-19.
“Most schools in the peri-urban and rural communities indicated that they were encountering serious water challenges within their institutions. In some schools, it was reported that they were relying solely on the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (Zinwa) or council water, and had no back-up storage tanks to cater for rationing periods.
“For these schools, it is difficult to keep a clean environment since access to water is a real nightmare. At such schools, in the event that schools open without reliable sources of water, the likelihood of experiencing disease outbreaks due to poor hygiene is high, over and above the threat of Covid-19 pandemic,” ZHRC said.
“In relation to compliance with use of personal protective items, some teachers indicated that face masks were by their very nature uncomfortable apparels which one could not continuously wear for the whole day, especially when administering lessons.
“The same applies to learners who would most likely discard the masks as the day progressed due to discomfort. This problem would be most prevalent with junior primary school learners who require constant supervision even in a non-Covid-19 situation,” the Commission added.
The ZHRC further indicated that there was a gap in the dissemination of information relating to reopening of schools and modalities by the Primary and Secondary Education ministry, to educators, learners, parents and guardians across the country.
“School administrators and other educators raised concerns over inconsistencies in information being disseminated by different government officials, through official social media platforms, print and electronic media, which they said was causing a lot of confusion amongst them.
“Educators demonstrated lack of information and guidance with regards to the modalities around the testing of staff and pupils before and after schools open.
“Both guardians and school authorities were of the view that there was need for prior testing of teachers, support staff as well as students before opening to cater for the window or asymptomatic periods and that upon opening of schools testing and temperature screening should be carried out regularly during the school term,” the ZHRC said.
 “They raised fears that concentration of students coming from different homes would expose them to the pandemic. They also stated that due to limitation of resources within their schools, it would be difficult for them (schools) to guarantee students’ safety.
“Equally of concern was the fact that their guardians did not have enough resources to provide them with protective equipment such as masks, and hand sanitisers.
“Again, some students indicated that they considered the opening of schools during the pandemic as an experiment with their precious gift of life, and therefore were not willing to go back to school, with some saying that they were prepared to repeat their current classes next year,” ZHRC.
Meanwhile Primary and Secondary Education minister Cain Mathema said the government would ensure that schools are adequately prepared for reopening as his ministry has engaged Treasury to avail the necessary funding.

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