Teachers in Zimbabwe are refusing to return to work after the resumption of some classes this week, accusing the government of failing to adequately prepare for the opening of schools.
Schools reopened last week for pupils due to sit exams in early December, six months after they were closed because of a rise in Covid-19 cases in the country. But teachers say the government is ill-prepared to deal with a possible outbreak of the virus in schools.
Only a limited amount of hand sanitiser has been made available to schools, according to the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), and acute water shortages make handwashing impossible.
“Government is not serious. There is no sanitation, there are not enough toilets and sanitisers. Each school in urban areas was given 20 litres of sanitisers and this is expected to cover 800 schoolchildren. It is simply not enough. How then will you sanitise the kids enough when they are coming to school every day,” PTUZ president, Raymond Majongwe said.
Regular washing of hands has been recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an effective way to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
According to the union, 98% of teachers did not report for work last week across the country, leaving some pupils fearing they will struggle to pass exams.
With most pupils failing to access online lessons during lockdown, attending class in the remaining months before the exams offers the only chance to catch up.
Teachers, who are paid the equivalent of $50 (£39) a month, have been at loggerheads with the government over salaries. They have said returning to class would endanger their families and are demanding a salary rise to $520 a month.
As frontline workers, the teachers also want regular testing, personal protective equipment (PPE) and risk allowances before resuming work.
“Teachers should now be regarded as frontline staff, so we need allowances, PPE and other things that come with frontline workers. We must be tested because nobody was tested. We risk taking Covid-19 home, so the government should be serious here,” Majongwe said.
Education ministry officials acknowledge schools are struggling to provide clean water for handwashing.
Obert Masaraure, president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ), said schools were ill-equipped to reopen.
“Rural schools have the worst infrastructure; the pandemic has exposed serious fault lines in our education sector. The same schools cannot afford to procure basic learning materials and cannot be expected to institute recommended safety measures for safe learning. Learners are going to school with faces covered with rags as they can’t afford masks,” Masaraure said.
According to a report on the education system by ARTUZ, social distancing is nearly impossible in overcrowded classes. Zimbabwe has 136,000 teachers for 4.6 million learners.
The government is now working to reduce overcrowding.
The report also noted an acute shortage of infrared thermometers to measure students’ temperature before entering school.
Teachers are calling on the government to defer 2020 examinations to give students more time.
“On the PPE issue, all teachers and learners will be protected; supporting staff will be protected. You can rest assured that what is required at each public school will be available,” education minister, Cain Mathemasaid.
Schoolchildren in Harare said they were afraid of failing final examinations without a teacher in place and with only two months to complete the syllabus.
Many of Zimbabwe’s children are working, as street vendors or in fields, alongside their schoolwork.
“I never got time to study during lockdown because my mother required me to sell vegetables. That is our only means of survival so studying was virtually impossible,” a pupil at Kuwadzana high school said.
An A-level student from George Stark high school in Harare said she had no access to e-learning facilities due to increases in data costs: “Data prices were rising every month so learning online was very tough. I only managed to benefit from the group discussions with my friends but it is not enough to pass exams.”