The Sunday Mail
Zimbabwe’s post-Independence success in universal education remains the envy of most nations around the world.
Basic education was declared an inalienable right in 1980, which made primary and secondary education free and compulsory.
This resulted in unprecedented provision and access to basic education.
The country now has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa.
But the fallout from the coronavirus and Cyclone Idai in March 2019 is presenting significant challenges to accessing basic education.
Zimbabwe, like many countries around the world, has closed schools to prevent the spread of the disease.
Schools and tertiary institutions were closed prematurely on March 24 last year, before they were reopened in phases in September and November.
They were closed again in mid-December to make way for the festive season.
Although they were scheduled to reopen on January 4, the schools’ calendar has been suspended indefinitely after an exponential increase in infections and fatalities.
A joint study by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstat) and the World Bank last year concluded that the premature closure of schools directly affected all of the 4,5 million learners in primary and secondary schools in one way or the other.
Less than half of all registered students in schools have received education since schools first closed last year, according to the report titled “Monitoring Covid-19 Impact on Households in Zimbabwe”.
While 40 percent of students in urban areas continued learning through online platforms, only 9 percent of their peers in rural schools had access to such platforms.
“Out of those who continued learning, 40 percent of children in urban areas are learning through mobile phones; this number is 9 percent in rural areas,” reads the report.
“Rural children depended more on parents’ assignment at 65 percent, while 17 percent use educational radio.”
According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) 2020 Budget Brief for Zimbabwe — released last month — natural disasters such as Cyclone Idai in 2019 and the coronavirus pandemic have immensely affected learners.
“The education system in Zimbabwe was already stretched before the Covid-19 pandemic, as a result of multiple crises, including the impact of Cyclone Idai in 2019, the economic crisis coupled with hyperinflation and the ongoing drought,” reads the brief in part.
“Before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, estimates by the Education Cluster were that out of the 3,4 million children between 3 and 12-years-old, at least 1,2 million (35 percent) would need emergency and specialised education services in 2020.”
Learners in Masvingo and Manicaland were dealt a double blow by both the cyclone and the Covid-19-induced school closure.
While measures were introduced in these provinces to assist learners to catch up with their peers in other parts of the country, getting back into class has proven a tall order.
National Aids Council (NAC) coordinator for Bikita District, Mr Charlton Gatsi, who has been working with UNICEF, said 500 school dropouts were recorded in the district between 2019 and 2020.
“We are just coming out of Cyclone Idai, which destroyed infrastructure at some schools in this district, resulting in some students failing to go to school,” he said.
“We are now experiencing Covid-19, and due to the lockdown, students have again been stopped from going to school.
“This means learners in this part of the country have lost about one to two years of learning, which can be detrimental to a student’s life.”
Owing to lack of resources, he said, most students cannot learn online, while some do not have access to radios to listen to learning programmes.
“So we have lost a lot of students along the way.”
Education gap widening
Experts say because of poor access to online learning by close to 40 percent of students, inequalities between the rich and poor learners are likely to widen further.
Most private schools have resumed lessons virtually.
International studies believe this would increase performance gaps by social class.
Private Schools Association of Zimbabwe secretary-general Loice Magweba said: “Following Government’s directive, we will have to continue with online lessons.
“There is nothing we can do. However, this time it will be difficult since we will be introducing new concepts.”
The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) latest report on education in Zimbabwe established that the protracted closure of schools will most negatively impact vulnerable children.
“Prolonged school closures will exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and inequalities among children, especially girls, children with disabilities, those in rural areas, orphans and vulnerable children, as well as those from poor households and fragile families,” reads the report.
Educationist Dr Cephas Nziramasanga said authorities should invest in new school infrastructure to guarantee resumption of classes in safe environments.
He said learners had lost up to a year of learning and this was set to affect the education system in the long run.
“However, I believe this is a learning curve for all of us and it is time the Government invests in infrastructure so that no learner is left behind.
“Obviously not everyone will be able to have access to the internet; however, providing radio and television lessons is essential.
“If statistics show that 17 percent of rural students used radio lessons, it means that there is potential to grow in that area and the Government needs to focus more on that.
“This is one method that can be used as a form of distance learning, which is cheap and affordable.”
South Africa excelled in radio and online classes even before the coronavirus pandemic.