• December 3rd, 2020

On the spot - Covid-19: The schools reopening dilemma

Education ministry executive director Sanet Steenkamp spoke to New Era journalist Kuzeeko Tjitemisa (KT) on some of the thorny issues regarding the reopening of schools amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

KT: Let me start by asking you what is it that the government is scared of losing, academically, that we haven’t already lost should the learners not return to school for the reminder of the year? 
SS: The ministry is aware of the escalating infection rates countrywide and equally aware of the divergent views of the public with regard to the opening of schools given the prevalence of this pandemic. 
On the other hand, as a ministry we are concerned that keeping learners at home will have far-reaching effects on their cognitive, emotional and social development. Hence our decision to reopen schools as per our phasing dates for the grades pre-primary to 9. 
Granted, learners have lost a substantive number of days in the 2020 school year. However, all is not lost as there are still some days left on which we can capitalise in order to prepare our learners for the 2021 academic year. In fact “time lost” is relative. The time was used for different activities and experiences wherever these were undertaken. 
The time was not utilised for face-to-face teaching and learning but this does not mean that no learning took place. There is a need to translate the experiences that learners had from this time outside the classroom to educational meaningful experiences which build character and knowledge. 
We should not work from the premise of a perceived “loss” or a perceived “deficiency” in the learners’ education. The continued period of school closures would have had immense ramifications on children’s learning, cognitive development, socialisation and mental health. Schools are hubs of social activity and human interaction. 
When schools close, many children and youth miss out on social contact that is essential to learning and development. 
Estimates indicate that 10% - 15% children will drop out which is 80 480 to 120 611 Namibian learners that will be out of school. Previous experiences have shown that the longer children are out of school, the less likely they are to return (UNICEF, 2015a). CMI Brief | May 2020. 
According to the Namibian study on out-of-school children (2015) those at most risk of dropping out are those born in poor circumstances and from more isolated regions. 

KT: How fair is it that in some regions the learners are not going to school whereas in some the learners are going to school? What if they approach the court of law for imbalances and injustice practice? 
SS: Ideally all learners should return to face-to-face teaching for at least minimal contact sessions to track their progress, however there are some schools that have temporarily delayed the reopening, particularly grades 7. 
This could be attributed to ongoing renovation and construction of ablution facilities, classroom, water provisions, etc. as per circular 7/2020. 
In the interim, these schools will continue to implement strategies to reach their learners and provide for learners to ensure education continues whilst putting measures in place so the schools could reopen as soon as possible. 

KT:  Circular 7 of 2020 gives various options that schools are following in order to adhere to Covid-19 protocols; how will government ensure that all schools cover the same quantity of work by the end of the year? 
SS: Circular 7/2020 speaks to the compliance standards for operations of schools during this pandemic and the ministry is confident of the cooperation from all schools in ensuring the implementation of the given provisions.

KT: Why can’t the grade 0 to 3 learners just be promoted to the next grade based on assessment completed up to March 2020?
SS: Contrary to concerns raised on the return of these learners, this phase constitutes the foundation and it is vital that they relatively receive rationalised competency-based development. 
And equally, little work was done before the abrupt school closure in March 2020. The focus for junior primary (grade 1-3) is on numeracy and literacy with concentration on four subjects, two languages, mathematics and environmental studies – with aspects of Covid-19 health protocols re-emphasised. 

KT: Why are the grade 10s prioritised than the grade 9s?
SS: The ministry recommended the rationalisation of the curriculum to 70% of the original subject syllabus content for pre-primary and grade 1 to 9. Due to this adjustment the grade 9 semi-external examination will not be administered in this academic year but only school-based tests on learning content covered. 
Grade 10 curriculum has not been rationalised because they are doing a two-year course for NSSC-O which is due for completion next year. We recognise that it will be a challenge to thoroughly prepare our current grade 10 learners but schools and teachers will be ready to invest more time come next year to catch up and ensure the readiness and preparedness of learners for national examinations at the end of 2021. 

KT: Are specific pedagogical services planned for students who cannot return to school or who fall significantly behind? 
SS: The ministry is making steady progress in ensuring safe and healthy environments for all teachers and learners. Even in a phased-in approach, we are not expecting all learners to attend school at the same time or on the same day. Ideally all learners should return to face-to-face teaching for at least minimal contact sessions to track their progress; however the ministry respects the rights of parents who do not wish to send their children to school and the Learning From Home (LFH) delivery mode option remains open to parents provided they continue to engage with the schools and teachers to ensure the learners do not fall behind.

KT: Don’t you think that Covid-19 presents an opportunity for the government to revise its school calendar – if so, how would such calendar be structured in terms of timelines?
SS: If not, why not? This pandemic has presented the ministry with opportunities and provided us a chance to relook our policies and framework in terms of the operations of schools on assessments, promotion and school calendar, etc. The school calendar committee will deliberate on calendar structuring, implications and adoption based on lessons learned from the Covid-19 disruptions on school operations and other factors. 

KT: How safe are schools to reopen for smaller grades while some schools reported Covid-19 cases?
SS: Global research suggests that the risk of children to acquire Covid-19 infection is lower than in adults and that the reopening of schools has not resulted in any significant outbreaks at a population level. 
Asymptomatic children attending schools are unlikely to spread the disease and the risk to teachers are not greater than essential workers. This trend can also be observed in the Namibian context with very few cases amongst children compared to adults. 
The ministry has sent out various circulars in relation to school preparedness for the Covid-19 response. This includes compliance standards in line with WHO Covid-19 protocols and Ministry of Health and Social Services directives.
Schools have worked very hard to implement these directives and many are compliant. The ministry has dispatched thermo-guns to all schools and washable face masks for all learners who have returned to school. 
The ministry has made available funds in the amount of N$600 million for the renovation and expansion of school and hostel infrastructure, which is currently underway in the various regions. 
The ministry and the regions have spent over N$29 million on the procurement of personal protective equipment. 

KT: What’s your take on private schools that are always adamant that they will continue with face-to-face learning and threatening legal action against government directives to discontinue face-to-face learning? 
SS: Proclamations are laws and we all ought to abide by them. 

KT: Lastly, when is the government or the ministry going to advertise teaching posts for 2021?
SS: The ministry recently undertook a fact finding exercise on post-provisioning norms in schools to determine the real extent of overstaffing and understaffing in all the 14 regions. 
This will enable the ministry to have a qualified perspective on the way forward. With regard to the advertisement of the teaching vacancy bulletin for 2021, the ministry will communicate on the date.

Kuzeeko Tjitemisa
2020-09-11 10:08:47 | 2 months ago

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