BY HARRIET CHIKANDIWA/RICHARD MPONDE
PARLIAMENTARIANS yesterday accused government of rashly reopening schools when it was ill-prepared to deal with COVID-19 outbreaks at institutions of learning after a number of students tested positive for the contagion virus at several schools across the country.
Schools opened for the final phase a fortnight ago with all pupils now set to attend classes after teachers called off their strike following a 41% pay hike.
However, rising COVID-19 cases appear to be the new threat to learning, a few weeks before some pupils sit for examinations.
John Tallach Secondary School in Ntabazinduna, Matabeleland North province, recorded 100 cases and Herentals College is reported to have recorded four cases, among other schools across the country.
At Chinhoyi University of Technology, seven students reportedly tested positive yesterday.
Unimpressed MPs yesterday questioned government’s preparedness to handle the pandemic in schools and why it decided to reopen the schools when it was ill-prepared to manage the outbreaks.
“The chairperson of the COVID-19 taskforce, Oppah Muchinguri, said there are enough resources to deal with the pandemic, but it is my submission that we cannot continue, and government cannot risk people’s lives because after school, those children will go and play with other kids,” Norton MP Temba Mliswa (Independent) said.
“Why have you gone on to open schools when we do not have enough resources? Why risk when we do not have enough resources?”
But Justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi, who is leader of government business in Parliament, responded: “Resources cannot be enough and that is a fact, but government has channelled resources to the Ministry of Health and designated NatPharm to produce COVID-19 materials.
“We cannot then say that we cannot open schools because we do not know when the pandemic will stop. So we put in place procedures so that we continue learning in the new normal. We had to adapt and whatever resources we have, we have channelled them to this pandemic.”
Mbizo MP Settlement Chikwinya (MDC Alliance) then asked Ziyambi to explain if schools had COVID-19 testing facilities.
This was after Ziyambi had told the House that government would not insist on schoolchildren sitting for examination where there was a danger of loss of life due to the pandemic.
“Where schools do not have testing facilities, then they must close because I do not know which school in particular has testing facilities for COVID-19,” Chikwinya said.
“Today (yesterday), Herentals College had four students that tested positive for the coronavirus and they were turned back and told to come back to school if they got COVID-19 certificates.”
Chikwinya asked: “With the failure by government to equip schools with COVID-19 testing kits, is it not prudent that government should just declare that all schools should be closed? Does government have the capacity to equip all schools with testing kits?”
Ziyambi, however, responded: “We have rapid response teams across COVID-19 centres. Where schools can make the necessary arrangements, then PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests can be done for that particular school and the learners that test negative can continue and those positive can be isolated.
“Where it is impractical to do so, then the school should close so that we contain the pandemic and so that the virus does not spread to other learners.”
He said when government ordered the opening of schools, protocols had been put in place by the Primary and Secondary Education ministry to ensure the COVID-19 regulations were complied with.
“But where there is an outbreak like the school in Bulawayo, measures will be put in place to ensure the safety of learners,” Ziyambi said.
MPs pressed the minister to reveal at whose expense the tests would be done in schools considering the high cost of conducting the tests, but Ziyambi said schools were working in collaboration with the Health ministry, with government footing the bill.
“The schools are working in collaboration with the Ministry of Health to take care of the costs, which are being assumed by the government through the Ministry of Health.”
Government on Tuesday announced that it would move swiftly to close any school that recorded COVID-19 cases as part of measures to curb the spread of the virulent pandemic amid reports that the country was under a second wave of the highly infectious disease.
This came as John Tallach, a Presbyterian Church-run boarding school in Matabeleland North province, recorded 100 COVID-19 cases, forcing authorities to shut down the institution.
Other schools dotted around the country have come up with timetables for different grades as part of measures to decongest schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
MPs expressed concern that there were teachers that were now charging students United States dollars for extra lessons.
Ziyambi responded: “I am not aware that there are teachers charging in US dollars because government policy is that we should use our own currency for transactions. MPs should know that teachers doing that should be reported to the Ministry of Labour which is the employer of civil servants so that they were investigated.”