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The global COVID 19 pandemic has exposed the inadequacy of Zimbabwe’s education sector, especially in vulnerable communities. Given that education is a human right, it is imperative for Government to create an enabling environment that guarantees ‘equal access to education for all.’ Investing in school infrastructure development, alternative learning methods, Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVCs), Early Childhood Education (ECD) and teacher capacitation would place Zimbabwe on a recovery path and ensure ‘no one is left behind.’ This policy brief advocates for the establishment of an Education Fund and prioritisation of rural electrification programme as long-term measures to enhance access to education in line with the national vision of becoming an Upper Middle-Income country by 2030.
Access to education is an indispensable human right which Governments are obliged to provide to ensure ‘no child is left behind.’ However, the emergence of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),1 has brought about unprecedented tribulations on the global economy and the education sector has not been spared. The disease has ravaged world economies leading to many countries adopting different strategies to curb the spread of the contagion, and to save lives and economies from collapsing. Over 188 countries imposed countrywide school closures, affecting more than 1.5 billion children and youth as of April 2020.2 The virus has further exacerbated inequalities and exclusion that have been haunting the sector for years, especially in developing countries. It is estimated that about 89% of learners in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to household computers, while 82% lack access to internet.3 Even the traditional tools such as radio and television can be difficult to access for many in Sub-Saharan Africa.4 Thus, children from poor families and vulnerable positions might suffer most from the global crisis.5 Hence, the call for Government intervention given that poverty and education are inextricably linked.
Schools in Zimbabwe closed on 24 March 2020, before a national lockdown was imposed on 30 March 2020 as the Government tried to curb the spread of Covid-19. Before the outbreak of Covid-19 in late 2019, Zimbabwe’s education sector was already being strained by legacy issues that have been lingering for many years. These include inadequate infrastructure, particularly, schools, internet facilities, radio and television connectivity, water and sanitation, among others. In the early 1980s and 1990s, Zimbabwe used to pride herself as one of the best African countries with a good education system. However, with the introduction of policy measures such as Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) around 1990s, the education sector went on a downward trend as Government followed the dictates of the Bretton Woods Institutions which called for reduction in spending in social sectors such as education and health. This resulted in inadequate schools and classrooms, shortages of furniture and learning materials, high teacher-pupil ratio among others. The poor state of affairs has been further exacerbated by the demands arising from Covid-19 requirements for safe opening of schools as stipulated by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The pandemic is slowly reversing the gains already achieved by many Sub-Saharan African countries who implemented the ‘Education for All’ policy, the 2000 – 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)6 and now the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)7. Many schools have remained closed for long periods without children having access to classroom or online lessons. The WHO noted that in some places, children have been out of school for 9 months or more. This prolonged school closures are therefore presenting unprecedented challenges to children’s education, health and well-being worldwide.8 The longer a child stays out of school, the higher the risk of regressing or dropping out. UNICEF noted that the cost of a continued lockdown increases the risk of teenage pregnancies, sexual exploitation, child marriages, abuse, violence and mental health issues among other threats to children’s well-being.The WHO established that crowded places and gatherings such as schools are breeding grounds for the spread of Covid-19. With the nature of the education system, learners and teachers interact on a daily basis through teaching, sharing learning materials, marking of books and playing among others, thereby increasing chances of spreading the disease. Without doubt, Covid-19 has slowly crippled the education sector given that the majority of countries are failing to cope with Covid 19 pressures. In light of this, would Covid-19 be a death knell for Zimbabwe’s education system given that it is already grappling with infrastructural challenges?
3.0 Legislative and Policy Framework
The Government, cognisant of the indispensable ‘right to education’ made significant strides to enhance access to education through the implementation of various international, regional and national obligations. These includes, among others, the Unilateral Declaration for Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR),10 the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)11 and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC).12 Within the national context, the enactment of the Constitution of Zimbabwe (Amendment No. 20) in 2013 changed the education landscape. Section 75 (1) provides for the ‘right to education’ by stipulating that ‘Every citizen and permanent residents of Zimbabwe has a right to – (a) a basic state-funded education, including adult basic education’. Subsection 4 further states that; ‘The State must take reasonable and other measures, within the limit of the resources available to it, to achieve the progressive realisation of the right to education’. Section 81(1) (f) declares that ‘every child… has the right to education…’
This is further strengthened by Education Amendment Act of 2020, which calls for progressive realisation of the ‘right to basic state funded education.’ Currently, the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare administers the Basic Education Assistance Module (BEAM) facility aimed at supporting vulnerable children to go to school. In addition, the Ministry in collaboration with the donor community spearheads the Harmonised Social Cash Transfer (HSCT) to vulnerable households which have contributed immensely to enhancing access to education in Zimbabwe.
4.0 The Covid-19 Matrix in Education: Key Focus Areas
The global pandemic has significantly altered the education sector, with the new normal requiring massive investments by governments and partners, particularly, targeting (i) provision of alternative learning choices for all learners, (ii) compliance to WHO Protocols, (iii) school infrastructure development, (iv) Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVCs) to continue with education, (v) investment in Early Childhood Education (ECD), (vi) teacher capacitation, and (vii) learner performance, among other demands, as discussed below.
4.1 Alternative Learning Approaches
Since the closure of schools in March 2020, the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education adopted alternative learning methods to ensure continuity of education for all learners. These included establishment of radio and television programmed lessons, WhatsApp and online lessons, creation of e-learning library and printing of books targeting remote learners. Schools were programmed to open on 12 May 2020 for second term, but due to the extended lockdown measures, about 3,4 million learners and 166 000 teachers and supporting staff were affected as schools remained closed. During the 5 months when schools were closed, only a few learners, in particular, elite public and private school learners had access to alternative learning while the majority of learners had no access. Learners from poor families were most affected as parents and guardians failed to pay for online lessons while at the same time, unable to provide the gadgets to facilitate for online learning. Remote learning demands appropriate hardware, software, gadgets and a high-speed internet connection, which currently is a major challenge in Zimbabwe.
Internet penetration in Zimbabwe stood at 33%, with about 4.81 million internet users as at January 2020.13 Zimbabwe learners are therefore at a disadvantage in terms of access to digital and distance learning since only 30.3% of households have access to the internet by any device from home, 40% of households have a radio set and 35.7% having a TV set.14 The Afro barometer survey acknowledged wider ownership of radio and television by most households, but noted hurdles relating to remote learning via these channels as they would still exclude significant portions of the learners, especially in rural areas.15 Thus, the various alternative learning methods which were recommended by the Government further widened the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ creating huge disparities within the sector. The field visits conducted by the Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education to rural schools in 202016 also revealed that majority of parents and learners across the country were not aware of the availability of such learning channels. However, others were aware but failed to access due to connectivity issues and high data pricing (e.g. Chimanimani, Chiredzi, Hwange and Nkayi districts). Therefore, with low internet penetration in Zimbabwe, offline learning material and special programmes for vulnerable learners deserve urgent consideration as a short term measure.17
4.2 Compliance to WHO Protocols
The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare developed ‘Standard Operating Procedures’ to assist school administrators on the day to day running of schools in the face of the pandemic. Schools opened on a phased approach during the third term (28 September to 18 December 2020) as measures to contain the spread of the disease.The phased approach to opening of schools was successful as most learners were able to return to school. However, the major challenge experienced by most schools during the term was inadequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs), infrared thermometers, sanitisers, disinfectants, water and sanitation among other Covid-19 related essentials.
The 2020 Parliamentary Committee Report on Schools Opening in light of Covid-1918 revealed that the Ministry had submitted a proposed budget of $21 billion to Treasury to meet its Covid-19 related expenditure for 2020. The proposed expenditure included recruitment of additional teachers, purchase of school furniture, drilling of boreholes, funding alternative learning methods and rehabilitation of some schools to meet the WHO guidelines to safe opening of schools. However, Treasury could not meet that requirement and only managed to avail ZWL$465 million for covid-19 related expenditure during the 2020 year.19 While most private schools tried to meet the Ministry Guidelines to Safe Opening of Schools, most government schools struggled due to inadequate resources. Thus, with this experience, it is imperative that more resources be targeted towards procurement of covid-19 related essentials for safe opening of schools in 2021 going forward.
4.3 School Infrastructure Development
The education sector is extremely in need of rehabilitation of old school buildings and construction of more classrooms and schools in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. As of 2013, Zimbabwe was in need of 2 056 new schools. An additional 33,636 classrooms were needed in existing schools, 83,268 classrooms needed minor repairs, 25,443 classrooms needed major repairs and 3,554 classrooms were substandard. Further, the Right to Education Index (RTEI) Survey noted that most schools with a huge number of students in urban areas were conducting hot sitting or double sessions which limits classroom time for learners. In dire situations, like satellite schools, some lessons were conducted under a tree or a shed where learners will be exposed to harsh weather conditions.20 Thus, with the global pandemic, the infrastructure gap in the education sector was further exposed due to social distancing requirements.
While the majority of schools devised ways to meet the social distancing requirements by splitting classes to about 20 learners per classroom, inadequate school infrastructure remains a major hindrance to enhancing access to education. This led to some schools devising timetables that allowed learners to come to school at least once a week per grade/form while examination classes would attend lessons every day. This in a way impacts on learning time for the learners as it reduces learning hours in class.
The pandemic has given rise to increased demands for water and sanitation to meet the hygiene requirements. Sadly, at a country level, Zimbabwe is already strained by the growing population making it difficult to meet the water and sanitation needs. Most schools both in urban and rural areas have no access to water and have devised alternative ways to cope with the pandemic. This is supported by observations made from field visits conducted by the Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education, which noted that in Matabeleland region, for example, school authorities requested learners to bring their own water from home. Therefore, while schools opened during the third term, there were challenges relating to proper infrastructure in line with meeting the WHO guidelines to safe opening of schools.
4.4 Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVCs)
The global pandemic is likely to leave many OVCs exposed. Groups at higher risk of dropping out of school includes, among others, girls, learners with disability, child headed families and marginalized communities. Basically, school access for OVCs was already a major challenge before the crisis and thus the number of learners likely to be out of school might increase. Interruptions in learning due to Covid-19 poses a high risk of regression for OVCs, in particular, children with learning disabilities whose basic learning foundation is not strong. During 2020 year, some rural schools reported increased number of school drop-outs during the third term, mainly citing inability of parents to pay school fees.21 Studies have shown that lack of access to education by disadvantaged children could perpetuate intergenerational transmission of poverty and inequality.
4.5 Early Childhood Education (ECD)
Continuous school closures impact negatively on the younger children more than the older ones as their dependence on parents and teachers is higher. Infants require coaching in their learning processes. Bandura’s Social Learning Theory posits that observation plays a critical role in learning, although this does not necessarily need to take the form of watching a live model. Instead, people can also learn by listening to verbal instructions about how to perform a behaviour as well as through observing either real or fictional characters displaying behaviours in books of films. It is by observing the actions of others, including teachers, parents and peers, that children develop new skills and acquire new information.
In this global pandemic, learning can take the form of either physical or virtual, but at the end of the day, ensuring there is impartation of skills to learners. Hence, supporting early childhood education and foundational learning in early primary school is critical for the government during this pandemic. One year has already been lost and in childhood development that is a huge loss that has long-term implications on learning. Educationist posits that learning is cumulative, therefore, if children fail to acquire foundational skills in early grades, they may find it much more difficult to learn later. Accordingly, it is necessary for ways and means to be devised targeting infants to progress and enhance their social, emotional, physical and psychological well-being as they learn.
4.6. Teacher Capacitation
Covid-19 has brought about additional duties for the teacher, in particular, monitoring the children in class to ensure that they comply with the covid-19 regulations. During school closures, most teachers are expected to provide lessons online and this requires additional commitment. For urbanite teachers, this entails preparing and uploading lessons using the latest technology, while those in remote areas entail preparing work, print materials and distribute learning materials in more remote or rural areas.22 In most cases, some teachers often fund teaching materials out of personal resources. Targeted funding to teachers and school officials in under-resourced areas is critical to ensure continuity of education.
4.7 Learner Performance
Proper learning during 2020 year was compromised due to the pandemic and other factors including an industrial action by the government teachers, which coincided with schools opening on 28 September 2020. The industrial action ended on 20 November 2020, a week before commencement of Zimbabwe School Examination Council (ZIMSEC) examinations. This implied that the majority of learners only had at their disposal one week of learning before writing their final examinations. This clearly showed that proper learning for most learners in public schools happened before schools closed in March 2020. 23 Hence, the national pass rate of 37.11% for grade seven 2020 national examination as compared to 46.9% in the previous year. Most private schools that managed to conduct alternative learning for its learners recorded 100% pass rates while the least poor 88 schools which did not engage in any form of online learning recorded 0% pass rate.
The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the urgent need for tailor made policies that focus on enhancing access to education for all children given that education contributes immensely in childhood development. The urgent resolve to infrastructure connectivity issues at national level, development of offline learning material and special programmes for vulnerable learners, teacher capacitation, investment in ECD and development of school infrastructure cannot be overemphasized.
6.0 Short-Term Policy Options
6.1 Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education engages its Ministry to:
6.1.1 prioritise the development and distribution of self-study packs at Provincial levels targeting vulnerable learners with connectivity challenges to facilitate continuity of learning during school closures.
6.1.2 facilitate for the capacitation of teachers with knowledge, skills and gadgets during this global pandemic and beyond.
6.2 Portfolio Committee on Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Resettlement engages its Ministry to ensure that the District Development Fund (DDF) and Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) are adequately capacitated to provide water to all schools by drilling boreholes at each school in need or provide tapped water.
7.0 Long-Term Policy Options
7.1 Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education push for the establishment of an Education Fund through an Act of Parliament to support learning and infrastructure development in the education sector.
7.2 Portfolio Committee on Energy and Power Development push for fast tracking of the rural electrification programme (including investment in solar energy) in rural areas, giving first priority to school connectivity to enhance access to on-line learning.
6 MDG 2: Achieve universal primary education by 2015
7 SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all by 2030
8 https://www.who.int/news/item/11-12-2020-new-checklist-supports-schools-to-reopen-and-prepare-for-covid-19-resurgences accessed on 1 February 2021
10 Article 13(1) states that, “The States Parties to the present Covenant recognise the right of everyone to education. They agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They further agree that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”
11 Article 28(1) states that, “State Parties recognise the right of the child to education and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall in particular; make primary education compulsory and available free to all; encourage the development of different forms of secondary education, including general and vocational education, make them available and accessible to every child, and take appropriate measures such as the introduction of free education and offering financial assistance in case of need;… take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates.
12 Article 11 states that, “Every child has the right to an education, to develop his or her personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential. This education also includes the preservation and strengthening of positive African morals, traditional values and cultures. Governments should also take special measures in respect of female, gifted and disadvantaged children, to ensure equal access to education for all sections of the community.”
13 www.darareportal.com/reports/digital-2020-zimbabwe accessed 6 February 2021 14 MICS Report, 2020
15 S. Moyo-Nyede & S. Ndoma: Limited Internet Access in Zimbabwe a Major Hurdle for Remote Learning during Pandemic, Afrobarometer Dispatch No. 371, 30 June 2020
16 Conducted from 30 November 2020 to 4 December 2020 (Report yet to be tabled in Parliament)
17 TUAC Secretariat Briefing: Impact and Implications of the COVID 19-Crisis on Educational Systems and Households, 16 April 2020
18 First Report of the Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education Committee on Schools Opening in Light of Covid-19 Pandemic
19 Ministry of Finance and Economic Development
21 Verbatim Report On the Visits by the Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education, 29 November 2020 to 5 December 2020
22 The Covid-19 Pandemic: Shocks to Education and Policy Responses, World Bank Group, May 2020
23 First Report of the Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education on the Field Visits to Check Compliance with Covid-19 Regulations and the State of Preparedness for October/November Examinations in Public Schools in Light of Covid-19 tabled in Parliament on 23 February 2021
(DISCLAIMER: The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this policy brief belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily of Parliament of Zimbabwe)