MOKOBENG: One of the highlights of President Mokgweetsi Masisi's address to the nation last week Tuesday was the closing of schools. This was long overdue owing to a spike in Covid -19 cases and related deaths in the country with schools hard hit.
Teacher trade unions have fought relentlessly for schools to close due to alarming rates of infections and associated deaths in schools. It is not the first time schools closed abruptly. In March 2020, the schools were forced to close in order for health and political leadership acquainted themselves with the pandemic, which was causing havoc in developed European countries. By then, the country had not registered any case.
Coincidentally schools closed at a time when students were about to sit for their examinations just like the previous abrupt closure of schools last year. It is therefore, critical to examine covid-19 situation in schools from an insider point of view.
Whereas government has put in place measures to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the country such as limiting the number of people attending social occasions like weddings and funerals, schools are unique in that they accommodate large population of people- students and staff.
Coming from a nationwide lockdown last year, schools adopted the new normal operations. Washing basins were put in place in strategic locations in schools for students and visitors to user, wearing of masks and social distancing became the norm..
Equally important was reduction of class sizes some of which were hovering around 50 to 30 students per class. With lack of funds to build new structures to accommodate newly created classes, schools improvised and used available structures traditionally not used as base rooms like halls and laboratories. Some schools even resorted to shifting owing to the large number of students' population.
Furthermore, schools invested in detergents and classrooms were regularly cleaned. With time, funds ran out and life continued like everything was okay. It is not uncommon for schools to run without mandatory cleaning of classrooms and at times cleaning personnel worked without protective gear like gloves- a fertile exercise for the spread of COVID-19.
Enforcing COVID-19 protocols is generally a challenge amongst the citizenry and schools are not an exception. It is common to see students not properly wearing masks despite monitoring. While it is better to manage students in classrooms but once outside, it is a different story. There are tea and luncheon breaks and after school activities when students freely mingle with their peers. For those in boarding, the situation is a serious challenge. Although some parents have withdrawn their children from boarding, the facilities are still overwhelmed. Without additional lodging facilities a junior secondary school hostel houses 8-10 students. Once one student catches the virus it becomes easy for others to be infected. Some boarding schools like Ramokgonami were forced to close as a result of spiralling infections among students at the hostels.
The schools COVID-19 situation is made worse by notorious students who deliberately get infected with ulterior motive of staying away from school. Teachers bear the brunt of such sinister motives. The school authorities are not without blemish on the matter. Despite numerous warnings against convening meetings instead of using other means of disseminating information, they opted for the risky convening of physical meetings. Complaints from junior officers often fall on deaf ears.
In conclusion, COVID-19 in schools is worrisome. Not only is learning disrupted when schools are forced to close or when one is quarantined. More worrisome is the fact that some of the infected eventually succumb to the disease.
Therefore, there is need for authorities to expeditiously vaccinate those at high risk of contracting the disease like teachers. There's no better time to do it like now. It is one's hope that the powers that be will act to remedy the situation sooner rather than later..