Education Alert Policy Brief [Vol. 10]: The COVID-19 Back to School Agenda: Lessons from Africa

COVID-19 and its attendant lockdown has negatively affected the global education sector with over 1.3 billion children missing months of schooling. In Africa, COVID-19 has threatened the sector by virtually cutting short the 2019/2020 academic year in the middle of March instead of July.

While students have lost over 14 weeks of instruction, countries are strategizing to salvage the academic year by ensuring that at least, all finalists complete and graduate. Ivory Coast, Namibia, South Africa, Senegal, Benin and Ghana are among countries that have partially reopened schools for up to one month, focusing on final year students at the various levels of the educational system.

This is to ensure finalists graduate and pave way for admissions at pre-basic to tertiary by the commencement of the 2020/21 academic year. The agenda to reopen schools becomes even more pressing having cognizance of the inequalities and exclusion associated with the largely undeveloped eLearning systems deployed by many countries as a stop-gap intervention during the COVID-19 lockdown. In the coming weeks, countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria have school reopening plans whereas others like Uganda is still debating whether to reopen schools this year or not.

As countries plan and approach re-opening, the lessons from other African counties that have reopened schools in the past weeks remains valuable, practical information that would help enrich the Continent’s preparation for universal school reopening by all countries. The notable strategies including testing of teachers, distancing in school, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) facilities provision, teacher capacity building on COVID-19 school management among others.

Testing of the school population: Countries like Benin, with a teacher population of about 100,000 embarked on the testing of teachers ahead of school reopening over a month ago. This was to give authorities an idea of the incidence of the disease in the school environment. This strategy may be expensive for countries with high teacher population as testing doesn’t come cheap. However, countries can consider a randomized-sample test of at least 1% of both teacher and student population in schools, both ahead of reopening and monthly to inform education and COVID-19 policy.

Psychosocial and pedagogical training of teachers: In the midst of the stigma and fear surrounding COVID-19, training teachers to provide adequate psychosocial support to students is necessary. Also, pedagogical capacity enhancement in accelerated learning may be required bearing in mind the reducing impact of COVID-19 on time on task.

Health and Safety Orientation for teachers and students: COVID-19 -Complaint Health and Safety training for teachers must happen prior to reopening, to ensure teachers and school workers are adequately equipped with the know-how to guide students through observance of COVID-19 safety protocols. Teachers may in turn conduct orientation for students when they arrive in school. In Ivory Coast, teachers were trained in COVID-19 safety before re-opening of schools.

Providing and enforcing mandatory wearing of facemasks: Ghana reopened schools with each student being given three re-usable face masks and a bottle of hand sanitizer which must be used throughout the 12 weeks or so to be spent. Similar to Benin which was one of the first African countries to make wearing of masks obligatory in public when it introduced the measures in main cities and towns on April 8, the enforcement of the wearing of facemasks in Ghanaian schools is backed by an Executive Instrument which makes it an offence NOT to wear facemasks in public, with liabilities of up to three years imprisonment.

Health screening and data management: In Namibia, schools have set up a screening station where each learner is screened and sanitized before entering the classroom daily. The details of the learners are recorded, including the overall wellbeing done based on a health questionnaire which is submitted to health authorities periodically. This includes temperature checking using a laser thermometer. We encourage governments through their respective Public Health Directorates to train teachers to undertake his function as there may not be enough public health nurses to man every school.

Distribution of COVID-19 items: The distribution of buckets, sanitizers, face masks etc. is a major cause of concern, as there were delays ahead of school reopening. In Ghana for instance, many Senior High Schools in rural areas received their consignment on day two (2) and three (3) of reopening, amidst head teachers improvising the use of local resources to manage the gap. This was due to the centralized procurement and distribution of COVID-19 items which were managed by the Office of the Senior Minister from the Capital, Accra, and not the Ghana Education Service which is decentralised administratively in every district. Key lessons include the need to either decentralize the procurement of COVID-19 items, or ensure every school receive their COVID-19 supplies BEFORE the day of reopening.

Observing social distancing in school: Social distancing protocols being observed include maximum class sizes of 30, no large gatherings of more than 100 people and no external break time. In countries like Ghana, break time is observed in the classroom with teacher supervision, while dinning sessions for boarding schools are phased into three batches to allow a maximum of four (4) students on a table compared to the usual eighteen (18) during the pre COVID-19 era. To restrict the potential of any imported infection in boarding schools, Ghana has a mandatory policy to admit all day students into boarding houses and prevent the any form of student visitation while on campus.

Developing eLearning policies, infrastructure: Across the continent, countries without active eLearning policies are developing, operationalizing or reinforcing them. These include pre and in-service teacher training in eLearning Instruction and assessments, curriculum digitization, provision of eLearning infrastructure and equipment for teachers, schools and students, setting up of digital Knowledge Banks, and the delivery of teaching and learning on these platforms. As we approach this relatively new enterprise, eLearning policies must be inclusive, especially, to encompass the needs of rural children without electricity and those with disabilities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has really presented a threat to our survival as individuals, families, communities, and nations. It has brought disruptions to many, if not all, of our socio-economic lives and activities; education inclusive. However, our ability to evolve, adopt and adapt creative/innovative practices to steer society through this storm, without compromising on quality, will indicate whether we are experiencing a threat of catastrophe or opportunity to prove ourselves as problem solvers. As we prepare to enter the post-COVID-19 era, we will need quality learners to be enrolled in schools with quality learning environments, where they will access quality content through quality processes to ensure quality outcomes.