HARARE: The COVID-19 pandemic has had ripple effects on a lot of sectors but the education sector is under the spotlight as the virus era has further deepened disparities and inequalities that exist in the delivery of education across the Southern Africa region.
This came out on the Education, Science and Technology session during the ongoing 3rd SADC Youth Forum which was themed on strategies to ensure, inclusive and quality education during the Covid-19 pandemic.
When the pandemic reached its peak governments in the SADC region closed down schools and came up with alternative ways of delivering education including, e-learning, radio lessons and TV lessons.
However, during the conference, it was realized that the reach and penetration of these alternatives sidelined those who are socially disadvantaged to have access to radio, computers, TV and cellphones.
The economic outlook in the region is also another contributing factor to education inequality as there are persistent power cuts, hiking of data tariffs, and lack of proper infrastructure, resources that enhance connectivity.
One of the panelists, Tapfuma Ronald Jongwe, an education specialist with the World Bank Group highlighted that SADC governments failed to make budget adjustments to suit the prevailing situation.
“There was no budget adjustments to react to the impact of COVID-19. We are just acting as if it’s business as usual. To talk of inclusivity and reach to the marginalized communities, the central government becomes a key player in that role, other than leaving efforts to parents and communities to try and mobilize resources” Jongwe highlighted.
“If we are treating Covid as a health crisis we also need to treat it as an education crisis. The education sector is the most affected after health so our national budgets need to be adjusted accordingly,” he further stated.
Southern African Students Union Deputy Chairman, Alister Pfunye, noted that devolution is critical to addressing gaps between the privileged and the underprivileged.
“SADC governments must devolutionalize technological infrastructure development to rural areas. Governments must invest more in developing rural centres and maybe build up libraries and computer labs for students who are in rural areas.”
Recently, the Zimbabwean government highlighted that they will be providing 400 schools that already have connections but are finding it difficult to pay bandwidth for nine months. It set a target of providing connectivity to 180 rural schools by the end of 2021 and also set up Communication, Information Centres in cities, towns and major growth points.
The government has been pushing further the level 4 lockdown and the vaccination process in a bid to try and reopen schools, even though they face backlash from Teachers Unions.
Weighing in, PTUZ president, Dr Takavafira Zhou said in a statement, that schools were in no way ready for reopening.
“Although our national survey as PTUZ is still ongoing, preliminary reports we have received reflect a high level of unpreparedness in 98% of the schools, with only 2% school preparedness in private and former group A schools. The level of unpreparedness is epitomized by, bloated classes in schools, no new infrastructural development in all schools, would be congested hostels in boarding schools, no recruitment of new teachers despite existing school vacancies, difficulties of ensuring social distance in terms of WHO standards and Ministry of Education standard operation procedures, no running water or reliable source of water in many schools, lack of Covid abatement equipment in schools, vaccination of 5. 6% of the 140000 teachers, against 65% considered safe to combat the spread of Covid 19, high attritional weekly and monthly death rates of teachers, no vaccination of pupils above 16 years, no engagement with teachers who in essence are the linchpin behind the successful opening of schools and no concerted efforts by the government to address the welfare of teachers and even salary discrepancies with other government workers,” he said.
“Any rushed decision for face-to-face learning in schools could be suicidal and worse than the current challenges,” he further stated.
The SADC Youth Forum is running a 4-day conference, tackling gender, entrepreneurship, media, education, health and sustainable youth development among others. The conference is running under the theme, Blue & Green Economy for Sustainable Development.