Schools reopening: ‘Driving learners to gas chambers’

THE government on Tuesday decreed that schools will reopen on July 28 despite the country witnessing an increase in coronavirus (Covid-19) cases. It proposed to implement several measures to mitigate the spread of the deadly disease at schools.

But teachers’ unions have profusely and adamantly rejected the reopening proposal and the writing of examinations later this month.

The Daily News on Sunday Senior Reporter Blessings Mashaya last week spoke to the secretary-general of the country’s largest teacher organisation, the Zimbabwe Teachers Association, Tapson Sibanda, on the issue. Below are the excerpts.

Q: What is your take on the schools reopening date?
A: I don’t think the opening date of July 28 as pronounced by the government is workable due to two major reasons.
The number of Covid-19 confirmed cases is upwardly spiralling daily, and there is no hope that by the given date things will be anything better. In fact, things are likely to be worse by then.

School environment is still far from meeting the WHO safety standards, hence opening schools on the given dates will be tantamount to driving innocent learners and teachers to (the late former Germany Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s gas chambers experiment). We can’t experiment with peoples’ lives.

Q: As teachers, are you ready for schools reopening?
A: Teachers are definitely not ready for the schools reopening. First and foremost, the school environment is not safe for them as I have already stated. Life is sacred and precious. One can only live once in a lifetime. There is no second chance.

Secondly, there is no hope that by then our teaching and learning environment would have met the WHO prescribed standards. As a result of these reasons, teachers are very much likely to defy the government directive to open schools come 28th July 2020.

Q: What should be done before reopening?
A: There are quite a number of things that need to be done before schools open, namely provision of adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) to all teachers and learners. Fumigate all schools so as to meet the WHO safety standards, provision of facilities and personnel for thermal testing of all learners and teachers. Reduce class sizes to safety levels.

All the stated tasks are government responsibility and in no way should they be pushed or relegated to poor communities who are currently struggling to have a meal per day due to the vagaries of the economic meltdown.

Q: Let’s come to the June ‘‘O’’ and ‘‘A’’ Level examinations, are you ready to invigilate?
A: As for June examinations, it is as obvious as the sun rises from the east and sets in the west that our schools by then would not have met the above stated safety standards.

It is, therefore, very dangerous for the government to proceed and order opening of schools on the suggested date. It is for that reason, therefore, that we have sought court interdict on that move through the High Court.

Secondly, the learners themselves are not ready for the examinations. Some of these candidates are school children who wanted to try their luck in June. The challenge they face is that they have lost a lot of time during this lockdown and are not ready for the examinations. Even the private candidates, the Covid-19 lockdown confined them to home and denied them free access to various study media. As a result they are not ready for the examinations.

Q: Have you engaged the government on these issues?A: Yes, we have been engaging the government on this matter in various forms. As Zimta, we presented our opinions to President Emmerson Mnangagwa in writing. We also wrote to the ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, and the ministry of Public Service, Labour and

Social Welfare. We held a number of consultative meetings with the ministry of Primary and Secondary Education of which they promised to look into our grievances.

It now comes as a directive that June examinations should be written on the stated dates and that schools are reopening on the 28th of July. It is for that reason that we have taken recourse to the courts for final determination of the matter. We also met the parliamentary portfolio committee on Education.

Q: Do you think there are enough teachers for reopening of schools under the proposed new measures?
A: Teachers in schools are far from being enough. In fact, the staffing situation in schools is quite pathetic. By the time we closed schools in March, we had some, if not most teachers, teaching classes of over 70 learners instead of the standard 40. As we open schools, the government is talking of employing an additional 6 000 teachers. This is a far cry from the expected number.

Suppose, as suggested, classes are reduced to 20 learners per class, my simple arithmetic tells me that we might need the number of teachers as equal as those we already have in the system (plus 130 000). The 6 000 teachers that the government is proposing is, therefore, a drop in the ocean.

Q: What about infrastructure?
A: The state of infrastructure in schools, particularly rural schools, is very pathetic. The infrastructure we have is not even enough for a normal set-up, worse for the Covid-19-induced deadly environment. We understand there will be some improvised classrooms though we are yet to see how they look like. However, thinking about infrastructure on its own creates some other underlying challenges as well. By providing additional classrooms of any form, one has to think about the provision of furniture and textbooks.

There is no more sharing of furniture and textbooks here as it used to be the norm. We were used to a situation where four learners in some cases would share one desk. Who will then provide for the deficit considering the cost of furniture these days? Who will provide additional textbooks at a ratio of teacher, learner 1:1?

Who will provide additional cottages for newly employed teachers, a situation that might see some schools doubling their authorised teacher establishment?

Q: What is your welfare like as teachers?
A: Teacher welfare is at the epicentre of our struggle for the betterment of the conditions of service for teachers. Faced with twin evils of Covid-19 and a collapsing economy, Zimbabwe is in a fix, yet we cannot continue compromising the welfare of teachers.

We are simply demanding our pound of flesh. In the background where our economy in essence has dollarised, regardless of the government denial, the civil servants, particularly teachers, are on the receiving end.

We, therefore, demand a restoration of the value of our salaries to US$550. Our conviction is that the government should pay us in US$ as the RTGS dollar salary payment has proven to be disastrous by being subjective to the vagaries of inflation.

We are looking forward to the negotiation process to start anytime soon. We are already behind schedule as of now a teacher’s salary is equivalent to US$30. This is quite pathetic and shameful. As teachers, we have become the laughing stock of the decade.

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