The importance of accessing education can never be overemphasised. As the saying goes, education remains the biggest equaliser. The advent of the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a learning crisis for millions of children around the world. Namibia is no exception. The scant attention that we have been paying to this critical sector has now come back to haunt us and in a big way.
Thousands of children are at risk of falling academically behind and have been deprived of their right to education. The reality on the ground is that there are many children who have not been in a classroom since March when government imposed a state of emergency to, rightly so, fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Suffice to say, the pandemic caught many nations, including well developed countries, off guard. Government leaders had to burn the midnight oil to come up with effective strategies to contain the virus, which has now spread like wildfire across our country, with now over
8 000 confirmed cases.
The pace at which this pandemic is accelerating is definitely a cause for serious concern and the risks of breaking the safe bounds of physical distancing remain as more measures are relaxed to find a balance in saving lives and protecting livelihoods. Given the unpredictable nature of the virus and the confirmation of community transmission across the country, including the national hotspot that is Windhoek, there have been growing fears that reopening schools next week may lead to a further spike of positive cases despite health protocol measures in place to keep the virus at bay, such as social distancing, wearing face masks, sanitising and frequent monitoring of body temperature.
It is true that it is extremely difficult for children to maintain social distancing while in school although science points to a minimal impact of the virus on children, even though those around them, including teachers and support staff, are still at risk of contracting the virus.
On the other hand, the education authorities find themselves in a dilemma, and understandably so, are determined to at least save the academic year. Unfortunately, the staggered reopening has not been realised to the letter as government adopted sweeping measures in the interim. It is a given that many children may not have had the opportunity of opening a book since March owing to the prevailing economic and social inequalities in our education system. Yes, while we give the thumbs up to schools, including public ones, for successfully rolling out online learning, we should also spare a thought to those shut out by circumstance. Children in homes without computers and stable internet connections are finding themselves on the periphery, making it difficult for them to catch up on missed learning.
The education crisis has sadly deepened given the uncertain future we are facing. As WHO regional director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti stated recently, schools provide a safe haven for many children in challenging circumstances to develop and thrive. It is therefore critical that there be a thorough assessment of the situation on the ground.
Obviously tough choices will have to be made going forward. Whatever the decision is going forward, we should not forget that there are thousands of already disadvantaged children and struggling students who may fall further behind. It is important that we allow science and facts to guide our decisions when it comes to reopening of schools and not emotions.