COVID-19 brings challenges of exclusion in education; Rural learners sing the blues as demands for e-learning worsens their situation.

By Br. Alfonce Kugwa

COVID-19 has created worse the challenges for the already burdened education system, let alone children from poor backgrounds who cannot access the so called e-learning facilities. With the current economic situation, only children from affluent families can afford to venture into e-learning platforms making education an elitist right. Those from already disadvantaged families will continue to sing the blues as the priority of putting food on the table will have to compete with the force of managing e-learning demands. Most rural schools lack the necessary essential services such as electricity, computers and enough teaching material. With these compounding problems one wonders if rural children will ever have their future enlightened.

The Deputy Headmaster of Mukaro High School, Mr. Misheck Vushe, confirmed that COVID-19 has brought challenges of exclusion to many learners especially those without internet access or smart phones that can place them on the same footing with their urban counterparts. He said while e-learning can be considered an option under these hard times, it is not an option for the poor who already struggle to meet other basic rights like food. He stressed that while online learning is an important tool for those who can afford, it cannot be guaranteed that those connected will be focussing on academic study but that chances of exploring non-school material maybe very high. According to Mr. Vushe, teachers should always be on the platform monitoring and receiving updates on a daily basis.

“COVID-19 has seriously affected the education system especially for those children without access to internet considering that most rural schools are not connected. Also, most students do not have the gadgets required to access the internet such as desk top computers, smartphones and let alone laptops and tablets,” said Mr. Vushe.

He said even if one has the equipment, the tariffs for data bundles were prohibitive for poor families to usher their children into the era of e-learning.

Mr. Vushe pointed that COVID-19 has caused earlier closure of schools than previously anticipated thereby affecting teaching and learning time. The most affected students, he said, are those due to write their June exams and other exam classes as syllabus completion has been seriously compromised.

Vushe said the challenges of accessing e-learning were compounded by failure by many students to afford data bundles as most of their parents are not gainfully employed.

“Purchasing data bundles every day for their students to connect online is an uphill battle for many parents as their sources of income have also been affected by COVID-19,” Mr. Vushe attested.

Mr. Vushe implored government to offer radio lessons to cater for the rural children and at least accord them an opportunity to remain connected to their education.

Mrs. Sheila Kaseke, who is the Education Secretary of the Archdiocese of Bulawayo said the time spent away from school has been too long such that some children have forgotten the concepts they learnt especially those who had just started ECD, grade one and form one.

“It is going to be difficult to make up for lost time and whatever will be done will be fast tracked and this will leave many learners behind. If schools do not open this year, there will be a back log on entries as those who are meant to move up will remain at the same level,” Mrs. Kaseke avowed.

Mrs. Kaseke cited that COVID-19 may impact more on the rural girl child who may be over loaded with household chores with not much time spared for school work. She said while the environment may be safe from abuse by strangers they may also be in grave danger if the perpetrators are at home with nowhere to report since schools are closed. She mentioned that due to economic hardships, domestic violence tends to increase and the girl child is emotionally abused while the cost of commodities have sky rocketed thereby further complicating the situation for the girl child in accessing soap and sanitary pads which are key to their hygiene.

Mrs. Kaseke pointed out that with no e-learning facilities, school work is negatively affected especially that of the rural learners and those from poor backgrounds.

Mr. Joseph Magomo. Head of Hama High School, highlighted that Mission Boarding schools have suffered the worst as schools have been closed for 9 weeks. This means no school fees to support the running of the institution like paying of ancillary staff and infrastructural maintenance. Even those in arrears have taken advantage of COVID-19 not to clear their debts.

“Ancillary staff are expected to receive their full salaries while seated at home. Some schools have not been able to pay them anything while others gave their workers a few groceries from what was left by learners due to early closure of schools.  This would have been the best time to carry out infrastructure repairs which are long overdue in most boarding schools but then there are no funds. By the time schools reopen most will be irreparable,” stressed Mr. Mogomo.

He said the proposed online learning was difficult to implement even where schools have the Wi-Fi as most learners from Catholic Boarding schools are from rural areas or poor urban families who cannot afford the cheapest smartphone. Even radio lessons which the government has tried to introduce requires learners to have text books and very few learners have basic text books for each learning area.

Mr. Magomo stressed: “We are faced with a situation where Catholic schools are suffering from their option for the poor policy. Fees and levies have always been very low in these schools to the extend that many have been living from hand to mouth while still producing very good results. Most teachers in Catholic schools have not been able to go to their homes most of which are rural homes. When one looks at their meagre salaries which are US$60 they have also failed to look after their aged parents and own families.”

Mukaro High School Headmistress, Mrs Pauline Dzapasi said while her school was concerned about the learners’ health, teachers also feared for their life as one case will affect the rest. She highlighted that even parents will not be at ease to send their children back to school under these circumstances. She however, bewailed the time lost by learners especially those without the necessary facilities for online education. Mrs. Dzapasi stated that maintaining social distance will be a great challenge if schools were to reopen.

“Learners themselves are not very keen to resume for they know that social distance is difficult to practise in heavily populated schools. As a result, parents will not sacrifice their children until there is assurance that it is safe to open schools,” said Mrs. Dzapasi.

Mrs Dzapasi pointed out that COVID-19 came when teachers and learners were adjusting to the updated curriculum under the already strained education system with poor funding, unfavourable teacher pupil ratio, accommodation woes and meagre salaries for teachers. She raised fears that with the country’s suffocating economy education may not get the priority it deserves and that some learners may drop out of school as sources of livelihoods continue to shrink.

The Education Coordinator for Mutare Diocese, Mr. Lawrence Chibvuri said most rural schools were deserted due to the lockdown as a result of COVID-19. He concurred with Mr. Magomo that school fees which is the only income for schools was locked up at homes. However, he said schools need assistance to be able to produce face masks and sanitisers for their students as well as money to capacitate teachers to connect with their students. He said his diocese was working on modalities of ensuring physical distancing and decongestion of classes especially those with plus or minus 60 learners.

Mr. Chibvuri encouraged schools to use social media as a way of continuing education in the face of COVID-19 and advised rural school heads to encourage teachers to prepare some short tests and exercises which learners can collect at school and work from home.

COVID-19 is real. The Head of Holy Cross High School, Mr. Nelson Chisamba emphasised the need by the responsible authorities to support schools with funding to produce face masks for every learner to avoid transmission of the virus at schools. Mr. Chisamba encouraged government through the Ministry of health and Child Care to support education institutions with testing kits especially at boarding schools where students come from different parts of Zimbabwe.

Gokomere High School Headmaster, Mr. Mazhunga expressed fear on the indefinite closure of schools which he said may further cripple the education system particularly that of rural pupils. He buttressed concerns raised by his colleagues arguing that virtual learning has proved difficult since its limited to only those with access to internet and can afford expensive social platforms. He lamented that limited virtual learning was going on at the school, particularly with examination classes.

Mr. Mazhunga said the fact that all learning activities have grounded to a halt has serious implications on the cash flow for schools.

Mr. Mazhunga said his school has trained teachers to manufacture sanitizers, disinfectants and face masks in preparation for the opening of the school. The manufacture of PPEs, according to Mr. Mazhunga was done using the meagre savings from the previous term.

The plight of rural learners and those from poor families need concerted effort from the government, Non-Governmental Organizations and churches. While e-learning is a good ambition for all schools in Zimbabwe, it still remains a long dream for most schools who grapple with more pressing challenges of water, electricity, starvation, school fees, unbearable distances for learners to and from school. Who will bail out rural children from this captivity?

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