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Zimbabwe Teachers Union Rejects UNICEF Push to Keep African Schools Open During Pandemic

A student has her temperature checked, at the entrance of a private school in Harare, Zimbabwe, Sept. 14, 2020.
A student has her temperature checked, at the entrance of a private school in Harare, Zimbabwe, Sept. 14, 2020.

Schools across Africa are slowly reopening after months of remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic. But Zimbabwe's teachers union is resisting going back to the classroom and has rejected a call by the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) for governments to reopen schools.

On Tuesday, Mohamed Malick Fall, regional director for UNICEF in Eastern and Southern Africa, urged governments in the region to open schools closed earlier this year following an outbreak of coronavirus.

Fall said the pandemic has caused “an unprecedented education crisis” over the last seven months as radio and online learning methods are not reaching all the students. Some also lost the daily meals they were receiving at school.

And that’s not all, said Fall.

“Lost learning hurts children and community, teenage pregnancy and violence against children increase. Now we acknowledge the safe reopening of schools will not be easy. While evidence show that children are not the main driver of the pandemic, there will be cases of COVID-19 in school(s). It will not be a practice in perfection. But it can be done with community commitment, government leadership and investment,” he said.

South Africa, despite its large COVID-19 caseloads, reopened schools for all grades at the end of August.

UNICEF says most countries in eastern and southern Africa have seen a phased return to schools, starting with exam classes.

In Zimbabwe exam classes are scheduled to start next week. But that now hangs in balance after the country’s biggest teachers’ union called for a strike unless their concerns are addressed.

The teachers earn about $100 a month, including a $75 “COVID-19 allowance” introduced two months ago. They want an additional $500 to be above the poverty line.

Sifiso Ndlovu, the head of the Zimbabwe Teachers Association, said he is “worried” that UNICEF has not looked at his country’s lack of preparedness to reopen schools.

“The safety issues that we have been concerned about in the schools have not been met thoroughly as to guarantee safe and healthy reopening of schools without high incidents of COVID-19. Secondly, UNICEF seem to be oblivious that the learning conditions for students is also dependent on the working conditions of the teachers and above all it should be supported by budgetary support even from UNICEF,” he said.

Amon Murwira is Zimbabwe's minister of higher and tertiary education. He said the government allocated about $60,000 to ensure that when schools reopen they are observing World Health Organization guidelines for COVID-19.

Neighboring Zambia opened schools Monday. Via WhatsApp, Christopher Yalukanda, from the Zambia National Union of Teachers said his organization is checking on the preparedness of schools after the over half-a-year-long closures.

“What we observed is that most of children came back equipped with masks, the schools have already acquired some face masks, sanitizers and they have set up some washing points within the school. In order to take care of social distancing schools have divided or staggering timetable, which means not all the learners will report to school the same day,” said Yalukanda.

He said it was too early to conclude that Zambia has successfully reopened schools and is following WHO guidelines to contain the coronavirus. He said the teachers union will go around the country to assess the situation.