As Zimbabwe continues with life under lockdown, which is in its seventh week, the country’s education system is in limbo with uncertainty over the reopening of schools as well as other services.
Most school-going children have been heavily affected by the lockdown as their academic year will most likely be cut short.
Following the closure of learning institutions in line with a government directive to contain COVID-19, thousands of primary and secondary school learners are at home and need guidance on home-based learning.
The government for long has been contemplating the idea of online education, which in all earnest will not be benefiting everyone due to the high cost of data which is beyond the paygrade of most parents who are earning less than US$30.
However, for a young man in Kwekwe, Tavonga Mareva (18), the lockdown has been a bittersweet occurrence in his dream of attaining his education which will propel him to his future ambitions.
Having dropped out of school in 2017, Tavonga has been struggling to continue with his formal education as his unemployed parents are not able to send him to school.
But a makeshift school initiative from the community led by a Maureen Sigauke, a qualified chemist and Organisational Sustainability Consultant, has opened new doors for people like Tavonga.
The home school comprises of six different learning locations, doted around four houses in the neighbourhood.
It has 38 kids drawn from the same hood while more kids are set to join the fast-rising facility.
The “school” setup is modelled in such a way that the pupils in the neighbourhood can take shifts to use the available rooms with the younger classes attending in the morning while the older pupils take the afternoon sessions.
While the main aim of the school was to take in children who had been affected by the lockdown and are missing out on their syllabi, this has presented an opportunity for Tavonga to also join in
“While some might be crying that the lockdown affected their daily living, for me, it is actually a blessing in disguise because I can finally have an opportunity to learn because I have been at home doing nothing all this while,” Tavonga said as he prepared to take a math lesson in one of the makeshift facilities in the high-density suburb of Mbizo.
According to the African Charter on Democracy and Governance (ACDEG) article 43(1), state Parties shall endeavour to provide free and compulsory basic education to all, especially girls, rural inhabitants, minorities, people with disabilities and other marginalized social groups.
However, with the economy has shrunk in the past few years, the government’s Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM) program has also disappeared and people like Tavonga would have benefited from it.
The young man was supposed to be sitting for his Ordinary level exams at the end of the year but due to constantly dropping out of school, he has lagged behind his peers and is playing catch up with the rest of his friends.
Being idle and the pressure of feeling being left behind, Tavonga said he resorted to wandering around the streets and he lost his focus, while at one time, he was tempted to resort to drug use to escape from the reality that faces him daily.
However, he can now stay indoors and focus on his studies and hope that the lockdown continues for as long as he can benefit from it.
“So, with the lockdown and this school set up in my hood, I can be able to, at last, attend school. My dream is to be a computer scientist but without going to school, I can’t attain that. I hope we can have a prolonged lockdown so that I can at least attend more classes and being a sharp student as I’m, I know with the little time and resources available, I can make the most of it,” the 18-year-old said.
Luckily for him, President Emmerson Mnangagwa recently announced an indefinite extension of the lockdown but plans are underway to ensure that schools open soon, he said.
The school, according to Sigauke, is a brainchild of the community with the need to keep children in school despite the lockdown.
With a staff of at least five teachers, both qualified and semi-qualified, the school is helping kids to stay focused, at a time when they are missing out.
While this informal education would not result in finishing the yearly curriculum, this will at least reduce the gap in learning that students are likely to experience if schools continue to remain shut for long.
This may also help in addressing the possible increase in drop-outs due to the long shutdown.
What gave birth to the idea, Sigauke said, was the fact that most parents in the area are low-income earners hence cannot afford the proposed e-learning, which the government is contemplating to introduce.
Using a population of 14,572,011 for 2019 as per ZIMSTAT projections, the internet penetration rate declined by 5% to record 57.9% from 62.9% recorded as at 31 December 2018.
According to the Potraz Abridged Sector Report of the First Quarter of 2019, the decline is a result of the economic environment hence more people cannot afford data bundles to keep their children in school.
“In as much as we can commend the government for its efforts, it is also important to note that they are excluding a certain number of people because when you look at it, the cost of data is exclusive in nature as the prices are quite exorbitant. How many people can afford data given the poverty rates we have in Zimbabwe?” Sigauke said.
“We took inventory of the number of kids we have in our street and we found out that we had 38 school going kids from form one to four.
“We disaggregated the numbers and realized that we would have classes of maybe 4 children but the biggest class had eight children. So in trying to keep in mind with the World Health Organisation and Government’s guidelines, we decided that these were safer numbers for children to congregate and conduct their learning,” Sigauke said.
The idea, she added, is to maintain social distancing while learning so as to reduce the risk of contracting the COVID-19.
Gatherings, including religious ones, funerals, and meetings have been banned, as have been bars and clubs.
Another important pillar is that the home school program has increased the role that parents play in educating their wards.
Although parents were not open to the idea initially, they later joined in and some offered operating spaces for students to use.
One of the neighbours, Miriam Mareva who offered her uncompleted two rooms for use by the kids said she was moved by the idea to keep kids in school despite the current restrictive measures.
“I offered this place free of charge and my house is a classroom for grade threes and sixes. We saw it was better for kids to at least have somewhere to put up during the lockdown, they need to keep engaged in school work.
“In fact, they are performing way better than when they were at school. We know they will eventually go back to their formal education but they will be a step ahead compared to their peers. The other advantage is they get a one on one teaching basis from qualified teachers and other parents,” she said.
“While the damage to the sector is similar to the damage every sector across the world is facing, it is possible that with some careful planning, we might be able to limit the long-term consequences of this prolonged shutdown,” Sigauke said.
Education, at any time, is a fundamental human right, Sigauke added, “But now, more than ever, it is our duty and responsibility as employers, co-workers, mentors, parents, and teachers to identify those who need help to become competent in reading, as well as listening, with understanding during this period.”
One of the qualified teachers who is helping the children, Rodney Ndlovu, said their end goal is to keep every child in school while helping them to escape the harsh social ills they may be exposed to by being idle.
“The idea is for us to keep the kids learning, it’s to their benefit. You find that if kids are not doing anything, they are constantly roaming the streets and they end up taking a lot of bad things, which is tragic. So, we are hoping that while we are providing education to them, we are also saving them from social ills,” he said.
The school has also attracted a lot of interest from surrounding areas with more parents enrolling their children, but the main challenge that remains is the operating space which can pose a health risk if proper measures are adopted.
The government has introduced mandatory testing for public spaces and for institutions that wish to reopen their services to the public.
However, most companies and small businesses are yet to meet the requirements as the cost of testing kids is beyond the reach of many.
Mass testing is one of the measures recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) besides a raft of hygiene practices, including now widely practised regular hand washing.